Loper v. Beto, No. 70-5388

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtMr. Justice STEWART announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which Mr. Justice DOUGLAS; WHITE; BURGER; If Burgett does, indeed, mean what the plurality opinion reads into it, we should overrule that decision without delay. As Mr. Justice
Citation405 U.S. 473,31 L.Ed.2d 374,92 S.Ct. 1014
PartiesOtis LOPER, Petitioner, v. George J. BETO, Corrections Director, et al
Docket NumberNo. 70-5388
Decision Date22 March 1972

405 U.S. 473
92 S.Ct. 1014
31 L.Ed.2d 374
Otis LOPER, Petitioner,

v.

George J. BETO, Corrections Director, et al.

No. 70-5388.
Argued Jan. 13, 1972.
Decided March 22, 1972.

Syllabus

For the purpose of impeaching petitioner's credibility, the prosecutor in petitioner's 1947 rape trial was permitted to interrogate him about his previous criminal record. Petitioner admitted four felony convictions during the period 1931—1940. He was found guilty by the jury and was sentenced to a term of 50 years. He filed a petition for habeas corpus in Federal District Court alleging that the previous convictions were constitutionally invalid under Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799, because he had been denied the assistance of counsel. The District Court denied relief and the Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that the 'fact that there are possible infirmities in the evidence does not necessarily raise an issue of constitutional proportions which would require reversal.' Held: The judgment is vacated and the case is remanded to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings. Pp. 480—485.

440 F.2d 934, 937, vacated and remanded.

Page 474

John T. Cabaniss, Houston, Tex., for petitioner.

Robert Darden, San Antonio, Tex., for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEWART announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, Mr. Justice BRENNAN, and Mr. Justice MARSHALL join.

The petitioner, Otis Loper, was brought to trial in a Texas criminal court in 1947 upon a charge of statutory rape. The alleged victim, Loper's 8-year-old stepdaughter, was the only witness who identified him as the perpetrator of the crime. The sole witness for the defense was Loper himself, who testified that he had not assaulted the victim in any way. For the purpose of impeaching Loper's credibility, the prosecutor was permitted on cross-examination to interrogate Loper about his previous criminal record. In response to this line of questioning, Loper admitted in damaging detail to four previous felony convictions during the period 1931—1940, three in Mississippi and one in tennessee.1

Page 475

At the conclusion of the one-day trial the jury found Loper guilty as charged and sentenced him to a term of 50 years in prison.

Page 476

Loper initiated the present habeas corpus proceeding in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas in 1969. He alleged, among other things, that the previous convictions used to impeach his credibility at the trial were constitutionally invalid under Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799, because he had been denied the assistance of counsel in the Mississippi and Tennessee courts that had convicted him.2

Page 477

His sworn testimony at the habeas corpus hearing confirmed these allegations. 3 In addition, he produced court

Page 478

records to corroborate this testimony. 4 The District Court denied habeas corpus relief, placing 'little or no credence' in Loper's testimony, and holding that in any event 'the question does not rise to constitutional stature and is not subject to collateral attack.'5

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 479

affirmed the judgment of the District Court. Although recognizing 'the force of Loper's argument to the effect that such convictions may have impaired his credibility in the minds of the jury as a witness in his own behalf,' the appellate court held that 'the use of such convictions as evidence for purposes of impeachment which goes only to credibility, is not nearly so serious as the use of a conviction for enhancement, which may add years of imprisonment to the sentence of a defendant. . . . The issue presented raises an evidentiary question. The fact that there are possible infirmities in the evidence does not necessarily raise an issue of constitutional proportions which would require reversal.' 440 F.2d 934, 937 (CA5).6

Page 480

We limited our grant of certiorari to a single constitutional question, worded as follows in the petition for certiorari: Does the use of prior, void convictions for impeachment purposes deprive a criminal defendant of due process of law where their use might well have influenced the outcome of the case? 404 U.S. 821, 92 S.Ct. 151, 30 L.Ed.2d 49. This is a recurring question that has received conflicting answers in the United States Courts of Appeals. 7 It is a question that has also divided state appellate courts.8

Page 481

The starting point in considering this question is, of course, Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799. In that case the Court unanimously announced a clear and simple constitutional rule: In the absence of waiver, a felony conviction is invalid if it was obtained in a court that denied the defendant the help of a lawyer.9

The Court dealt with a sequel to Gideon in Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109, 88 S.Ct. 258, 19 L.Ed.2d 319. There a Texas indictment charging the petitioner with assault contained allegations of previous felony convictions, that if proved, would have increased the punishment for assault under the state recidivist statutes. The indictment was read to the jury at the beginning of the trial. Records of two of the previous convictions were offered in evidence during the course of the trial, and it appeared that at least one of these convictions had been obtained in violation of Gideon. In reversing the Texas judgment, the Court said:

'To permit a conviction obtained in violation of Gideon v. Wainwright to be used against a person either to support guilt or enhance punishment for another offense . . . is to erode the principle of that case. Worse yet, since the defect in the prior conviction was denial of the right to counsel, the accused in effect suffers anew from the deprivation of that . . . right.' 389 U.S., at 115, 88 S.Ct., at 262.

Earlier this Term we had before us a case in which it appeared that previous convictions obtained in viola-

Page 482

tion of Gideon had played a part in the determination of the length of a convicted defendant's prison sentence. United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443, 92 S.Ct. 589, 30 L.Ed.2d 592. We there ruled that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had been correct in holding that the teaching of Burgett required a remand of the case to the trial court for resentencing.

The Tucker case involved only that aspect of Burgett that prohibits the use of invalid prior convictions to 'enhance punishment.' The case now before us involves the use of such convictions 'to support guilt.'10 For the issue of innocence or guilt in this case turned entirely on whether the jury would believe the testimony of an 8-year-old girl or that of Loper. And the sole purpose for which the prior convictions were permitted to be used was to destroy the credibility of Loper's testimony in the eyes of the jury.11

Page 483

Unless Burgett is to be forsaken, the conclusion is inescapable that the use of convictions constitutionally invalid under Gideon v. Wainwright to impeach a defendant's credibility deprives him of due process of law.12 We can put the matter no better than in the words of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit:

'We conclude that the Burgett rule against use of uncounseled convictions 'to prove guilt' was intended to prohibit their use 'to impeach credibility,' for the obvious purpose and likely effect of impeaching the defendant's credibility is to imply, if not prove, guilt. Even if such prohibition was not originally contemplated, we fail to discern any distinction which would allow such invalid convictions to be used to impeach credibility. The absence of counsel impairs the reliability of such convictions just as much when used to impeach as when used as direct proof of guilt.' Gilday v. Scafati, 428 F.2d 1027, 1029.

A dissenting opinion filed today suggests that our decision presses the 'sound doctrine of retroactivity beyond the outer limits of its logic.' On the contrary, our decision in this case follows directly from the rationale under which Gideon v. Wainwright, supra, was given retroactive application. We have said that the principle

Page 484

established in Gideon goes to 'the very integrity of the fact-finding process' in criminal trials, and that a conviction obtained after a trial in which the defendant was denied the assistance of a lawyer 'lacked reliability.' Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U.S. 618, 639, 85 S.Ct. 1731, 1743, 14 L.Ed.2d 601 and n. 20. Loper has 'suffered anew' from this unconstitutional deprivation, Burgett v. Texas, supra, regardless of whether the prior convictions were used to impeach him before or after the Gideon decision. It would surely be unreasonable, as one dissenting opinion suggests, to expect the judge at Loper's trial to have anticipated Gideon, just as it would have been unreasonable to have expected the judge at Gideon's trial to have foreseen our later decision in that case. But a necessary result of applying any decision retroactively is to invalidate rulings made by trialjudges that were correct under the law prevailing at the time the judges made them.13 If the retroactivity of Gideon is 'sound,' then this case cannot be decided under the ill-starred and discredited doctrine of Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 62 S.Ct. 1252, 86 L.Ed. 1595.

The judgment before us is set aside, and the case is remanded to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Vacated and remanded.

Page 485

Mr. Justice WHITE, concurring in the result.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of Loper's petition for habeas corpus, reasoning that the use of invalid prior convictions to impeach a defendant in a criminal case does not raise an issue of constitutional proportions even though so using those convictions might well have influenced the outcome of the case. It was on that issue that we granted certiorari; and as...

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392 practice notes
  • Lewis v. United States, No. 78-1595
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • February 27, 1980
    ...by criminal sanction, is not inconsistent with Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109; United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443; and Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473. Pp. 65-67. 591 F. 2d 978, affirmed. Page 56 BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, REH......
  • State v. Ellison, No. 33215-2-III
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • June 14, 2016
    ...anew from the deprivation of that Sixth Amendment right.Page 15 Burgett, 389 U.S. at 115 (internal citations omitted). In Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473, 92 S. Ct. 1014, 31 L. Ed. 2d 374 (1972), the nation's high Court held that use for impeachment purposes of prior convictions, which are void......
  • People v. Harrison, Cr. 12656
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • January 20, 1984
    ...invalid prior convictions for impeachment purposes would be error of federal constitutional dimension. (See Loper v. Beto (1972) 405 U.S. 473, 92 S.Ct. 1014, 31 L.Ed.2d 374; People v. Coffey (1967) 67 Cal.2d 204, 218-219, 60 Cal.Rptr. 457, 430 P.2d 15.) The question then is whether the phra......
  • People v. Taylor, Cr. 15600
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • October 20, 1972
    ...335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed. 799, was used to blacken the defendant's character and thus damage his general credibility (see Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473, 92 S.Ct. 1014, 31 L.Ed.2d 374; People v. Coffey, 67 Cal.2d 204, 218--219, 60 Cal.Rptr. 457, 430 P.2d 15). Loper distinguished the situation......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
391 cases
  • Lewis v. United States, No. 78-1595
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • February 27, 1980
    ...by criminal sanction, is not inconsistent with Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109; United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443; and Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473. Pp. 65-67. 591 F. 2d 978, affirmed. Page 56 BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, REH......
  • State v. Ellison, No. 33215-2-III
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • June 14, 2016
    ...anew from the deprivation of that Sixth Amendment right.Page 15 Burgett, 389 U.S. at 115 (internal citations omitted). In Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473, 92 S. Ct. 1014, 31 L. Ed. 2d 374 (1972), the nation's high Court held that use for impeachment purposes of prior convictions, which are void......
  • People v. Harrison, Cr. 12656
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • January 20, 1984
    ...invalid prior convictions for impeachment purposes would be error of federal constitutional dimension. (See Loper v. Beto (1972) 405 U.S. 473, 92 S.Ct. 1014, 31 L.Ed.2d 374; People v. Coffey (1967) 67 Cal.2d 204, 218-219, 60 Cal.Rptr. 457, 430 P.2d 15.) The question then is whether the phra......
  • People v. Taylor, Cr. 15600
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • October 20, 1972
    ...335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed. 799, was used to blacken the defendant's character and thus damage his general credibility (see Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473, 92 S.Ct. 1014, 31 L.Ed.2d 374; People v. Coffey, 67 Cal.2d 204, 218--219, 60 Cal.Rptr. 457, 430 P.2d 15). Loper distinguished the situation......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • The Supreme Court of the United States, 1971-1972
    • United States
    • Political Research Quarterly Nbr. 25-4, December 1972
    • December 1, 1972
    ...record which convictions Loper alleged were constitutionally invalid under Gideon v. Wainwright (372 U.S. 335, 1963) . In Loper v. Beto (405 U.S. 473; 92 S. Ct. 1014) the Court, speaking through JusticeStewart (vote: 5-4, Burger, Powell, Blackmun, and Rehnquist dissenting), held the rule of......

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