Nichols v. United States

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation511 U.S. 738
Docket NumberNo. 92-8556.,92-8556.
Decision Date06 June 1994

511 U.S. 738


No. 92-8556.

United States Supreme Court.

Argued January 10, 1994.

Decided June 6, 1994.

511 U.S. 739

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 749. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, post, p. 754. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 765.

William B. Mitchell Carter, by appointment of the Court, 510 U. S. 942, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Mary Julia Foreman.

Deputy Solicitor General Bryson argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Harris, Michael R. Dreeben, and Thomas E. Booth.*

511 U.S. 740

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we return to the issue that splintered the Court in Baldasar v. Illinois, 446 U. S. 222 (1980): Whether the Constitution prohibits a sentencing court from considering a defendant's previous uncounseled misdemeanor conviction in sentencing him for a subsequent offense.

In 1990, petitioner Nichols pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U. S. C. § 846. Pursuant to the United States Sentencing Commission's Guidelines (Sentencing Guidelines), petitioner was assessed three criminal history points for a 1983 federal felony drug conviction. An additional criminal history point was assessed for petitioner's 1983 state misdemeanor conviction for driving under the influence (DUI), for which petitioner was fined $250 but was not incarcerated.1 This additional criminal history point increased petitioner's Criminal History Category from Category II to Category III.2 As a result, petitioner's sentencing range under the Sentencing Guidelines increased from 168-210 months (under Criminal History Category II) to 188-235 months (under Category III).3

511 U.S. 741

Petitioner objected to the inclusion of his DUI misdemeanor conviction in his criminal history score because he was not represented by counsel at that proceeding. He maintained that consideration of that uncounseled misdemeanor conviction in establishing his sentence would violate the Sixth Amendment as construed in Baldasar, supra. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee found that petitioner's misdemeanor conviction was uncounseled and that, based on the record before it, petitioner had not waived his right to counsel.4 763 F. Supp. 277 (1991). But the District Court rejected petitioner's Baldasar argument, explaining that in the absence of a majority opinion, Baldasar "stands only for the proposition that a prior uncounseled misdemeanor conviction may not be used to create a felony with a prison term." 763 F. Supp., at 279. Because petitioner's offense was already defined as a felony, the District Court ruled that Baldasar was inapplicable to the facts of this case; thus, petitioner's constitutional rights were not violated by using his 1983 DUI conviction to enhance his sentence.5 It sentenced petitioner to the maximum term allowed by the Sentencing Guidelines under its interpretation of Baldasar, a term 25 months longer than if the misdemeanor conviction had not been considered in calculating petitioner's criminal history score.

511 U.S. 742

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. 979 F. 2d 402 (1992). After reviewing the fractured decision in Baldasar and the opinions from other Courts of Appeals that had considered the issue, the court held that Baldasar limits the collateral use at sentencing of a prior uncounseled misdemeanor conviction only when the effect of such consideration is to convert a misdemeanor into a felony.6 The dissent, while recognizing that "numerous courts have questioned whether Baldasar expresses any single holding, and, accordingly, have largely limited Baldasar to its facts," nevertheless concluded that Baldasar proscribed the use of petitioner's prior uncounseled DUI conviction to enhance his sentence under the Sentencing Guidelines. 979 F. 2d, at 407-408 (citations omitted).

We granted certiorari, 509 U. S. 953 (1993), to address this important question of Sixth Amendment law, and to thereby resolve a conflict among state courts7 as well as Federal Courts of Appeals.8 We now affirm.

511 U.S. 743

In Scott v. Illinois, 440 U. S. 367 (1979), we held that where no sentence of imprisonment was imposed, a defendant charged with a misdemeanor had no constitutional right to counsel.9 Our decision in Scott was dictated by Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U. S. 25 (1972), but we stated that "even were the matter res nova, we believe that the central premise of Argersinger —that actual imprisonment is a penalty different in kind from fines or the mere threat of imprisonment—is eminently sound and warrants adoption of actual imprisonment as the line defining the constitutional right to appointment of counsel." Scott, supra, at 373.

One year later, in Baldasar v. Illinois, 446 U. S. 222 (1980), a majority of the Court held that a prior uncounseled misdemeanor conviction, constitutional under Scott, could nevertheless not be collaterally used to convert a second misdemeanor conviction into a felony under the applicable Illinois sentencing enhancement statute. The per curiam opinion in Baldasar provided no rationale for the result; instead, it referred to the "reasons stated in the concurring opinions."

511 U.S. 744
446 U. S., at 224. There were three different opinions supporting the result. Justice Stewart, who was joined by Justices Brennan and Stevens, stated simply that the defendant "was sentenced to an increased term of imprisonment only because he had been convicted in a previous prosecution in which he had not had the assistance of appointed counsel in his defense," and that "this prison sentence violated the constitutional rule of Scott . . .." Ibid. Justice Marshall, who was also joined by Justices Brennan and Stevens, rested his opinion on the proposition that an uncounseled misdemeanor conviction is "not sufficiently reliable" to support imprisonment under Argersinger, and that it "does not become more reliable merely because the accused has been validly convicted of a subsequent offense." 446 U. S., at 227-228. Justice Blackmun, who provided the fifth vote, advanced the same rationale expressed in his dissent in Scott —that the Constitution requires appointment of counsel for an indigent defendant whenever he is charged with a "nonpetty" offense (an offense punishable by more than six months' imprisonment) or when the defendant is actually sentenced to imprisonment. 446 U. S., at 229-230. Under this rationale, Baldasar's prior misdemeanor conviction was invalid and could not be used for enhancement purposes because the initial misdemeanor was punishable by a prison term of more than six months

Justice Powell authored the dissent, in which the remaining three Members of the Court joined. The dissent criticized the majority's holding as one that "undermines the rationale of Scott and Argersinger and leaves no coherent rationale in its place." Id., at 231. The dissent opined that the majority's result misapprehended the nature of enhancement statutes that "do not alter or enlarge a prior sentence," ignored the significance of the constitutional validity of the first conviction under Scott, and created a "hybrid" conviction, good for the punishment actually imposed but not available for sentence enhancement in a later prosecution.

511 U.S. 745
446 U. S., at 232-233. Finally—and quite presciently—the dissent predicted that the Court's decision would create confusion in the lower courts. Id., at 234

In Marks v. United States, 430 U. S. 188 (1977), we stated that "when a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, `the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds . . . .' " Id., at 193, quoting Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U. S. 153, 169, n. 15 (1976). This test is more easily stated than applied to the various opinions supporting the result in Baldasar. A number of Courts of Appeals have decided that there is no lowest common denominator or "narrowest grounds" that represents the Court's holding. See, e. g., United States v. Castro-Vega, 945 F. 2d 496, 499-500 (CA2 1991); United States v. Eckford, 910 F. 2d 216, 219, n. 8 (CA5 1990); Schindler v. Clerk of Circuit Court, 715 F. 2d 341, 345 (CA7 1983), cert. denied, 465 U. S. 1068 (1984). Another Court of Appeals has concluded that the holding in Baldasar is Justice Blackmun's rationale, Santillanes v. United States Parole Comm'n, 754 F. 2d 887, 889 (CA10 1985); yet another has concluded that the "consensus" of the Baldasar concurrences is roughly that expressed by Justice Marshall's concurring opinion. United States v. Williams, 891 F. 2d 212, 214 (CA9 1989). State courts have similarly divided.10 The Sentencing Guidelines have also reflected uncertainty over Baldasar.11 We think it not useful

511 U.S. 746
to pursue the Marks inquiry to the utmost logical possibility when it has so obviously baffled and divided the lower courts that have considered it. This degree of confusion following a splintered decision such as Baldasar is itself a reason for reexamining that decision. Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U. S. 808, 829-830 (1991); Miller v. California, 413 U. S. 15, 24-25 (1973)

Five Members of the Court in Baldasar —the four dissenters and Justice Stewart—expressed continued adherence to Scott v. Illinois, 440 U. S. 367 (1979). There the defendant was convicted of shoplifting under a criminal statute which provided that the penalty for the...

To continue reading

Request your trial
640 cases
  • Ramos v. Racette, 11-CV-1412 (JG)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • January 4, 2012
    ...728 (1998); United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 154 (1997); Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389, 399 (1995); Nichols v. United States, 511 U.S. 738, 747 (1994) (noting that repeat-Page 53offender laws "penaliz[e] only the last offense committed by the defendant" (internal quotation marks......
  • State v. Templeton, No. 71502-5
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • December 19, 2002
    ...186, 568 N.W.2d 383 (1997), aff'd, 459 Mich. 109, 587 N.W.2d 1 (1998). 97. 446 U.S. 222, 100 S.Ct. 1585, 64 L.Ed.2d 169 (1980). 98. 511 U.S. 738, 114 S.Ct. 1921, 128 L.Ed.2d 745 (1994). 99. Reichenbach, 224 Mich.App. at 192-93, 568 N.W.2d 383. 100. People v. Reichenbach, 459 Mich. 109, 127 ......
  • Gardner v. Appellate Div. of the Superior Court, S246214
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • March 28, 2019
    ...afforded by the federal Constitution. (Shelton , supra , 535 U.S. at pp. 668–669 & fn. 8, 122 S.Ct. 1764 ; Nichols v. United States (1994) 511 U.S. 738, 748, fn. 12, 114 S.Ct. 1921, 128 L.Ed.2d 745.)In invoking the "actual imprisonment" standard, respondent relies on the Court of Appeal’s d......
  • Thompson v. Premo, 6: 15-cv-01313-AA
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Oregon)
    • May 13, 2021
    ...the death sentence of evidence the defendant had committed burglaries for which he had not been convicted); Nichols v. United States, 511 U.S. 738, 747, 114 S.Ct. 1921, 128 L.Ed.2d 745 (1994)(citing Williams with approval, in a non-capital case, for the proposition that the Court has upheld......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
6 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • Ave Maria Law Review No. 18, January 2020
    • January 1, 2020
    ...wrong but unworkable as well, and so persist in my refusal to give that jurisprudence stare decisis effect."); Nichols v. United States, 511 U.S. 738, 759 (1994) (Blackmun, J., dissenting); United States v. Dixon, 509 U.S. 688, 712 (1993) (proving Grady v. Corbin, 495 U.S. 508 (1990), unwor......
  • Prior convictions of separate offenses
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books California Drunk Driving Law - Volume 1-2 Volume 1
    • March 30, 2022
    ...Or did proper advice and waiver of the right to counsel and appointed counsel make a defendant “uncounseled”? In Nichols v. U.S. (1994) 511 U.S. 738, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Baldasar , and clarified some of the confusion it had created. Like, why do we have a special rule to deal w......
  • Post-trial
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Defending Drinking Drivers - Volume One
    • March 31, 2022
    ...her right to a jury trial. The state then appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court. On appeal, the court followed Nichols v. United States , 511 U.S. 738 (1994), where the Supreme Court held that a sentencing court may use a defendant’s prior uncounseled misdemeanor conviction to enhance the ......
  • Dui defense
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Florida Small-Firm Practice Tools - Volume 1-2 Volume 2
    • April 1, 2023
    ...the sufficient reliability that is necessary to enhance a sentence in a subsequent proceeding. [ Id . at 1049 (citing Nichols v. U.S ., 511 U.S. 738 (1994) (overruling Baldasar v. Illinois , 446 U.S. 222 (1980)).] Where the prosecution seeks to use a prior DUI conviction to support a felony......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT