Chandler v. Fretag

Decision Date08 November 1954
Docket NumberNo. 39,39
Citation75 S.Ct. 1,348 U.S. 3,99 L.Ed. 4
PartiesWilliam C. CHANDLER, Petitioner, v. FRETAG, Warden
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr.Earl E. Leming, Knoxville, Tenn., for petitioner.

Mr.Knox Bigham, Nashville, Tenn., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner is held in the custody of respondent, Warden of the Tennessee State Penitentiary, under a sentence of life imprisonment as an habitual criminal. Challenging the validity of that sentence under the Fourteenth Amendment, he commenced this action in the Tennessee courts to obtain his freedom. We granted certiorari, 347 U.S. 933, 74 S.Ct. 632, because of the substantial question presented by his constitutional claim.

The basic facts are undisputed. Petitioner is a middle-aged Negro of little education. He was indicted on March 10, 1949, for the offense of housebreaking and larceny, an offense punishable by a term of three to ten years. The indictment charged him with breaking and entering a business house and stealing therefrom sundry items of the aggregate value of $3. Following his arrest, petitioner was released on bond while awaiting trial set for May 17, 1949. On that day, without an attorney and without notice of any habitual criminal accusation against him, petitioner appeared in court intending to plead guilty to the indictment. He 'felt that an attorney could do him no good on said charge (housebreaking and larceny).' When his case was called for trial, he was orally advised by the trial judge that he would also be tried as an habitual criminal because of three alleged prior felonies.1 He was informed that conviction under the Tennessee Habitual Criminal Act carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.2 Petitioner promptly asked for a continuance to enable him to obtain counsel on the habitual criminal accusation. His request was summarily denied, a jury was impaneld, and the case proceeded immediately to trial. Petitioner entered his plea of guilty to the housebreaking and larceny charge, and the prosecution introduced evidence in corroboration of the plea. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge instructed the jury to raise their right hands if they accepted petitioner's guilty plea on the housebreaking and larceny charge and if they approved of a three-year sentence on that charge. The jury responded by raising their right hands. The judge then instructed the jury to raise their right hands a second time if they found petitioner to be an habitual criminal. Once again the jury, without ever having left the jury box, raised their right hands. The entire proceeding—from the impaneling of the jury to the passing of sentence—consumed between five and ten minutes.

Three years later, having served his sentence on the housebreaking and larceny charge, petitioner applied to the Circuit Court of Knox County for habeas corpus relief.3 He alleged that his sentence as an habitual criminal was invalid on the ground, among others, that he had been denied an opportunity to obtain counsel in his defense.4 At a hearing on the application, petitioner, his wife, his brother, a juror, and the prosecuting attorney testified as to their recollection of petitioner's trial.5 All five witnesses were in full accord as to the above-stated facts. They differed only on whether petitioner had pleaded guilty to the habitual criminal accusation and whether the prosecution had introduced any evidence concerning petitioner's prior convictions. The prosecuting attorney, the only witness for the state, testified that petitioner had pleaded guilty to the habitual criminal accusation as well as the housebreaking and larceny charge, and that the record of petitioner's prior convictions had been read to the jury; the other four witnesses denied it. In all other respects, the testimony of the prosecuting attorney substantiated the testimony of the other four witnesses. Thus he conceded that petitioner had not been represented by counsel, that petitioner had not been given any pretrial notice of the habitual criminal accusation, that petitioner 'said he wanted the case put off as he was advised by the Court that he was being tried as an habitual criminal in addition to housebreaking and larceny. He asked that the case be put off so he could get a lawyer and (the trial judge) told him he had had since January up to May to get a lawyer.'

The Circuit Court, after hearing the case on the merits, accepted—as does the respondent here—petitioner's factual allegations as to the denial of counsel. The Circuit Court nevertheless upheld the validity of peti- tioner's sentence and the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed. Both courts emphasized that the Tennessee Habitual Criminal Act, like similar legislation in other states, does not create a separate offense but only enhances a defendant's punishment on being convicted of his fourth felony. Tipton v. State, 160 Tenn. 664, 672—678, 28 S.W.2d 635, 637—639. See also McDonald v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 180 U.S. 311, 313, 21 S.Ct. 389, 390, 45 L.Ed. 542; Graham v. State of West Virginia, 224 U.S. 616, 623—624, 32 S.Ct. 583, 585, 56 L.Ed. 917. From that premise, the courts below reasoned that petitioner had waived any right to counsel on the habitual criminal accusation by waiving counsel on the housebreaking and larceny charge. With this conclusion, we cannot agree.

Section 1 of the Act defines 'habitual criminal' in considerable detail.6 Section 7 prescribes standards for the admissibility of the record of the prior convictions of a defendant charged with being an habitual criminal.7 This Section, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held, clearly authorizes '(a)n issue of fact as to the verity of such record or as to the identity of the accused with the person named in such record * * *.' Tipton v. State, 160 Tenn. 664, 678, 28 S.W.2d 635, 639. Proof of the defendant's prior convictions is '* * * a condition precedent to the imposition of the increased punishment provided.' Tipton v. State, supra. Section 6 of the Act, moreover, provides that the increased punishment cannot be imposed unless the jury specially finds that the defendant is an habitual criminal as charged.8 'Under section 6 of the Act', according to the Tennessee Supreme Court, 'the question as to whether the defendant is an habitual criminal is one for the jury to decide.' McCommings v. State, 175 Tenn. 309, 311, 134 S.W.2d 151, 152. In short, even though the Act does not create a separate offense, its applicability to any defendant charged with being an habitual criminal must be determined by a jury in a judicial hearing. Compare Williams v. People of State of New York, 337 U.S. 241, 69 S.Ct. 1079, 93 L.Ed. 1337. That hearing and the trial on the felony charge, although they may be conducted in a single proceeding, are essentially independent of each other.9 Thus, for example, it is possible that the jury in the instant case might have found petitioner guilty on the housebreaking and larceny charge and yet found him innocent of being an habitual criminal. Apparently recognizing this possibility, petitioner at the earliest possible moment affirmatively sought an opportunity to obtain counsel on the habitual criminal accusation. Immediately on being informed of the accusation and suddenly finding himself in danger of life imprisonment, he re- quested a continuance so that he could engage the services of an attorney; but the trial court refused the request and forced him to stand immediate trial. On these undisputed facts, it is clear beyond question that petitioner did not waive counsel on the habitual criminal accusation. See Rice v. Olson, 324 U.S. 786, 788 789, 65 S.Ct. 989, 990—991, 89 L.Ed. 1367.

The Tennessee Attorney General denies, however, that petitioner had any federal constitutional right to counsel. He relies on the doctrine enunciated in Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 62 S.Ct. 1252, 86 L.Ed. 1595. But that doctrine has no application here. Petitioner did not ask the trial judge to furnish him counsel; rather, he asked for a continuance so that he could obtain his own. The distinction is well established in this Court's decisions. Powell v. State of Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 71, 53 S.Ct. 55, 65, 77 L.Ed. 158; Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 466, 468, 62 S.Ct. 1252, 1258, 1259, 86 L.Ed. 1595; House v. Mayo, 324 U.S. 42, 46, 65 S.Ct. 517, 520, 89 L.Ed. 739. Regardless of whether petitioner would have been entitled to the appointment of counsel, his right to be heard through his own counsel was unqualified.10 See Palko v. State of Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 324—325, 58 S.Ct. 149, 151, 82 L.Ed. 288. As this Court stated over 20 years ago in Powell v. State of Alabama, supra, 287 U.S. at pages 68—69, 53 S.Ct. at page 64:

'What, then, does a hearing include? Historically and in practice, in our own country at least, it has always included the right to the aid of counsel when desired and provided by the party asserting the right. 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 in- capable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of...

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