407 U.S. 25 (1972), 70-5015, Argersinger v. Hamlin

Docket Nº:No. 70-5015
Citation:407 U.S. 25, 92 S.Ct. 2006, 32 L.Ed.2d 530
Party Name:Argersinger v. Hamlin
Case Date:June 12, 1972
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 25

407 U.S. 25 (1972)

92 S.Ct. 2006, 32 L.Ed.2d 530




No. 70-5015

United States Supreme Court

June 12, 1972

Argued December 6, 1971

Reargued February 28, 1972



The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to the assistance of counsel, which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth, Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, is not governed by the classification of the offense or by whether or not a jury trial is required. No accused may be deprived of his liberty as the result of any criminal prosecution, whether felony or misdemeanor, in which he was denied the assistance of counsel. In this case, the Supreme Court of Florida erred in holding that petitioner, an indigent who was tried for an offense punishable by imprisonment up to six months, a $1,000 fine, or both, and given a 90-day jail sentence, had no right to court-appointed counsel, on the ground that the right extends only to trials "for non-petty offenses punishable by more than six months imprisonment." Pp. 27-40.

236 So.2d 442, reversed.

DOUGLAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which DOUGLAS and STEWART, JJ., joined, post, p. 40. BURGER, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 41. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 44.

Page 26

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, an indigent, was charged in Florida with carrying a concealed weapon, an offense punishable by imprisonment up to six months, a $1,000 fine, or both. The trial was to a judge, and petitioner was unrepresented by counsel. He was sentenced to serve 90 days in jail, and brought this habeas corpus action in the Florida Supreme Court, alleging that, being deprived of his right to counsel, he was unable as an indigent layman properly to raise and present to the trial court good and sufficient defenses to the charge for which he stands convicted. The Florida

Page 27

Supreme Court, by a four-to-three decision, in ruling on the right to counsel, followed the line we marked out in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 159, as respects the right to trial by jury, and held that the right to court-appointed counsel extends only to trials "for non-petty offenses punishable by more than six months imprisonment." 236 So.2d 442, 443.1

[92 S.Ct. 2008] The case is here on a petition for certiorari, which we granted. 401 U.S. 908. We reverse.

The Sixth Amendment, which, in enumerated situations, has been made applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth Amendment (see Duncan v. Louisiana, supra; Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14; Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213; Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400; Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335; and In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257), provides specified standards for "all criminal prosecutions."

Page 28

One is the requirement of a "public trial." In re Oliver, supra, held that the right to a "public trial" was applicable to a state proceeding even though only a 60-day sentence was involved. 333 U.S. at 272.

Another guarantee is the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation. Still another, the right of confrontation. Pointer v. Texas, supra. And another, compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in one's favor. Washington v. Texas, supra. We have never limited these rights to felonies or to lesser but serious offenses.

In Washington v. Texas, supra, we said,

We have held that due process requires that the accused have the assistance of counsel for his defense, that he be confronted with the witnesses against him, and that he have the right to a speedy and public trial.

388 U.S. at 18. Respecting the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right to compulsory process for obtaining witnesses, it was recently stated,

It is simply not arguable, nor has any court ever held, that the trial of a petty offense may be held in secret, or without notice to the accused of the charges, or that, in such cases, the defendant has no right to confront his accusers or to compel the attendance of witnesses in his own behalf.

Junker, The Right to Counsel in Misdemeanor Cases, 43 Wash.L.Rev. 685, 705 (1968).

District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617, illustrates the point. There, the offense was engaging without a license in the business of dealing in second-hand property, an offense punishable by a fine of $300 or imprisonment for not more than 90 days. The Court held that the offense was a "petty" one, and could be tried without a jury. But the conviction was reversed

Page 29

and a new trial ordered, because the trial court had prejudicially restricted the right of cross-examination, a right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

The right to trial by jury, also guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment by reason of the Fourteenth, was limited by Duncan v. Louisiana, supra, to trials where the potential punishment was imprisonment for six months or more. But, as the various opinions in Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66, make plain, the right to trial by jury has a different geneology, and is brigaded with a system of trial to a judge alone. As stated in Duncan:

Providing an accused with the right to be tried by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge. If the defendant preferred the common sense judgment of a jury to the more tutored, but perhaps less sympathetic, reaction of the single judge, he was to have it. Beyond this, the jury trial provisions in the Federal and State Constitutions reflect a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power -- a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges. Fear of unchecked power, so typical of our State and Federal Governments in other respects, found expression in the criminal [92 S.Ct. 2009] law in this insistence upon community participation in the determination of guilt or innocence. The deep commitment of the Nation to the right of jury trial in serious criminal cases as a defense against arbitrary law enforcement qualifies for protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and must therefore be respected by the States.

391 U.S. at 156.

Page 30

While there is historical support for limiting the "deep commitment" to trial by jury to "serious criminal cases,"2 there is no such support for a similar limitation on the right to assistance of counsel:

Originally, in England, a person charged with treason or felony was denied the aid of counsel, except in respect of legal questions which the accused himself might suggest. At the same time, parties in civil cases and persons accused of misdemeanors were entitled to the full assistance of counsel. . . .

* * * *

[It] appears that, in at least twelve of the thirteen colonies, the rule of the English common law, in the respect now under consideration, had been definitely rejected, and the right to counsel fully recognized in all criminal prosecutions, save that, in one or two instances, the right was limited to capital offenses or to the more serious crimes. . . .

Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 60, 64-65.

The Sixth Amendment thus extended the right to counsel beyond its common law dimensions. But there is nothing in the language of the Amendment, its history, or in the decisions of this Court to indicate that it was intended to embody a retraction of the right in petty offenses wherein the common law previously did require that counsel be provided. See James v. Headley, 410 F.2d 325, 331-332, n. 9.

We reject, therefore, the premise that, since prosecutions for crimes punishable by imprisonment for less than

Page 31

six months may be tried without a jury, they may also be tried without a lawyer.

The assistance of counsel is often a requisite to the very existence of a fair trial. The Court in Powell v. Alabama, supra, at 669 -- a capital case -- said:

The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small, and sometimes no, skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel, he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence. If that be true of men of intelligence, how much more true is it of the ignorant and illiterate, or those of feeble intellect.

In Gideon v. Wainwright, supra (overruling Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455), we dealt with a felony trial. But we did not so limit the need of the accused for a lawyer. We said:

[I]n our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into [92 S.Ct. 2010] court who is too poor to hire a lawyer cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal,

Page 32

quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of...

To continue reading