379 U.S. 443 (1965), 6, Henry v. Mississippi

Docket Nº:No. 6
Citation:379 U.S. 443, 85 S.Ct. 564, 13 L.Ed.2d 408
Party Name:Henry v. Mississippi
Case Date:January 18, 1965
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 443

379 U.S. 443 (1965)

85 S.Ct. 564, 13 L.Ed.2d 408




No. 6

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 18, 1965

Argued October 13, 1964



The Mississippi Supreme Court, reviewing petitioner's appeal from a conviction for disturbing the peace, first filed an opinion which reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial. The court held that petitioner's wife's consent to a search of his automobile did not waive his rights and, in the belief that petitioner had out-of-state counsel unfamiliar with local practice, reversed in spite of petitioner's failure to comply with the state requirement of contemporaneous objection to the introduction of illegal evidence. The court noted that petitioner moved for a directed verdict at the close of the State's case, assigning as one ground the use of the illegal evidence. After the State filed a Suggestion of Error, pointing out that petitioner was represented by local as well as out-of-state counsel, the court substituted another opinion, affirming the conviction and holding that mistakes of counsel, even if honest, are binding on the client.

Held: the question whether the nonfederal procedural ground (the contemporaneous objection requirement) is adequate to bar review -- that is, whether its imposition in this case serves a legitimate state interest -- is not decided, for the record indicates, but is insufficient to establish, that petitioner, personally or through counsel, may have knowingly forgone his opportunity to raise his federal claims. Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 439. The interests of sound judicial administration call for a remand to permit the State to establish whether or not there was a waiver. This may avoid the necessity for a decision by this Court on the adequacy of the state procedural ground, and it permits the State to determine the waiver question, which would otherwise be open on federal habeas corpus, even if the state ground were adequate. Pp. 449-453.

154 So.2d 289 reversed and remanded.

Page 444

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted of disturbing the peace, by indecent proposals to and offensive contact with an 18-year-old hitchhiker to whom he is said to have given a ride in his car. The trial judge charged the jury that "you cannot find the defendant guilty on the unsupported and uncorroborated testimony of the complainant alone." The petitioner's federal claim derives from the admission of a police officer's testimony, introduced to corroborate the hitchhiker's testimony. The Mississippi Supreme Court held that the officer's testimony was improperly admitted as the fruit of "an unlawful search, and was in violation of § 23, Miss. Constitution 1890." 154 So.2d 289, 294. [85 S.Ct. 566]1 The tainted evidence tended to substantiate the hitchhiker's testimony by showing its accuracy in a detail which could have been seen only by one inside the car. In particular, it showed that the right-hand ash tray of the car in which the incident took place was full of Dentyne chewing gun wrappers, and that the cigarette lighter did not function. The police officer testified that, after petitioner's arrest, he had returned to the petitioner's home and obtained the permission of petitioner's

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wife to look in petitioner's car. The wife provided the officer with the keys, with which the officer opened the car. He testified that he tried the lighter and it would not work, and also that the ashtray "was filled with red dentyne chewing gum wrappers."

The Mississippi Supreme Court first filed an opinion which reversed petitioner's conviction and remanded for a new trial. The court held that the wife's consent to the search of the car did not waive petitioner's constitutional rights, and noted that the "[t]estimony of the State's witness . . . is, in effect, uncorroborated without the evidence disclosed by the inspection of defendant's automobile." 154 So.2d at 296 (advance sheet).2 Acting in the belief that petitioner had been represented by nonresident counsel unfamiliar with local procedure, the court reversed despite petitioner's failure to comply with the Mississippi requirement that an objection to illegal evidence be made at the time it is introduced. The court noted that petitioner had moved for a directed verdict at the close of the State's case, assigning as one ground the use of illegally obtained evidence; it did not mention petitioner's renewal of his motion at the close of all evidence.

After the first opinion was handed down, the State filed a Suggestion of Error, pointing out that petitioner was in fact represented at his trial by competent local counsel, as well as by out-of-state lawyers. Thereupon, the Mississippi Supreme Court withdrew its first opinion and filed a new opinion in support of a judgment

Page 446

affirming petitioner's conviction. The new opinion is identical with the first save for the result, the statement that petitioner had local counsel, and the discussion of the effect of failure for whatever reason to make timely objection to the evidence.

In such circumstances, even if honest mistakes of counsel in respect to policy or strategy or otherwise occur, they are binding upon the client as a part of the hazards of courtroom battle.

154 So.2d at 296 (bound volume). Moreover, the court reasoned, petitioner's cross-examination of the State's witness before the initial motion for directed verdict, and introduction of other evidence of the car's interior appearance afterward, "cured" the original error and estopped petitioner from complaining of the tainted evidence. We granted certiorari, 376 U.S. 904. We vacate the judgment of conviction and remand for a hearing on the question whether the petitioner is to be deemed to have knowingly [85 S.Ct. 567] waived decision of his federal claim when timely objection was not made to the admission of the illegally seized evidence.

It is, of course, a familiar principle that this Court will decline to review state court judgments which rest on independent and adequate state grounds, even where these judgments also decide federal questions. The principle applies not only in cases involving state substantive grounds, Murdock v. City of Memphis, 20 Wall. 590, but also in cases involving state procedural grounds. Compare Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117, 125-126, with Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22. But it is important to distinguish between state substantive grounds and state procedural grounds. Where the ground involved is substantive, the determination of the federal question cannot affect the disposition if the state court decision on the state law question is allowed to stand. Under the view taken in Murdock of the statutes conferring appellate jurisdiction

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on this Court, we have no power to revise judgments on questions of state law. Thus, the adequate nonfederal ground doctrine is necessary to avoid advisory opinions.

These justifications have no application where the state ground is purely procedural. A procedural default which is held to bar challenge to a conviction in state courts, even on federal constitutional grounds, prevents implementation of the federal right. Accordingly, we have consistently held that the question of when and how defaults in compliance with state procedural rules can preclude our consideration of a federal question is itself a federal question. Cf. Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 450. As Mr. Justice Holmes said:

When, as here, there is a plain assertion of federal rights in the lower court, local rules as to how far it shall be reviewed on appeal do not necessarily prevail. . . . Whether the right was denied or not given due recognition by the [state court] . . . is a question as to which the plaintiffs are entitled to invoke our judgment.

Love v. Griffith, 266 U.S. 32, 33-34.

Only last Term, we reaffirmed this principle, holding that a state appellate court's refusal, on the ground of mootness, to consider a federal claim did not preclude our independent determination of the question of mootness; that is itself a question of federal law which this Court must ultimately decide. Liner v. Jafco Inc., 375 U.S. 301. These cases settle the proposition that a litigant's procedural defaults in state proceedings do not prevent vindication of his federal rights unless the State's insistence on compliance with its procedural rule serves a legitimate state interest. In every case, we must inquire whether the enforcement of a procedural forfeiture serves such a state interest. If it does not, the

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state procedural rule ought not be permitted to bar vindication of important federal rights.3

The Mississippi rule requiring contemporaneous objection to the introduction of illegal evidence clearly does serve a legitimate state interest. By immediately apprising the trial judge of the objection, counsel gives the court the opportunity to conduct the trial without using the tainted evidence. If the objection is well taken, the fruits of the illegal [85 S.Ct. 568] search may be excluded from jury consideration, and a reversal and new trial avoided. But, on the record before us, it appears that this purpose of the contemporaneous objection rule may have been substantially served by petitioner's motion at the close of the State's evidence asking for a directed verdict because of the erroneous admission of the officer's testimony. For at this stage, the trial judge could have called for elaboration of the search and seizure argument, and, if persuaded, could have stricken the tainted testimony or have taken other appropriate corrective action. For example, if there was sufficient competent evidence without this testimony to go to the jury, the motion for a directed verdict might have been denied, and the case submitted to the jury with a...

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