Argersinger v. Hamlin

407 U.S. 25

Case Year: 1971

Case Ruling: 9-0, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Douglas

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When the Court's ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) forced states to begin providing representation for indigent defendants, the Court undid what it had done in Betts v. Brady (1942). Despite its groundbreaking significance in this and other areas, however, Gideon left several questions unanswered--such as what crimes were covered, did the ruling apply only to felonies, and when did the right to counsel end? Whether Gideon should be applied to offenses less serious than a breaking and entering charge was addressed in Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972), an appeal from a man sentenced to serve ninety days in jail for weapons violations.



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 Supreme Court by a four-to-three decision, in ruling on the right to counsel ... held that the right to court-appointed counsel extends only to trials "for non-petty offenses punishable by more than six months imprisonment."...

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... provides specified standards for "all criminal prosecutions."

One is the requirement of a "public trial."...

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

The right to trial by jury, also guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment by reason of the Fourteenth, was limited by Duncan v. Louisiana, to trials where the potential punishment was imprisonment for six months or more. But... the right to trial by jury has a different genealogy 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 complaint, 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 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."

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

... [T]here is nothing in the language of the [Sixth] 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....

We reject, therefore, the premise that since prosecutions for crimes punishable by imprisonment for less than 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, 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 ... 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 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, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public's interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him."

Both Powell and Gideon involved felonies. But their rationale has relevance to any criminal trial, where an accused is deprived of his liberty. Powell and Gideon suggest that there are certain fundamental rights applicable to all such criminal prosecutions, even those where the penalty is 60 days' imprisonment...

The requirement of counsel may well be necessary for a fair trial even in a petty-offense prosecution. We are by no means convinced that legal and constitutional questions involved in a case that actually leads to imprisonment even for a brief period are any less complex than when a person can be sent off for six months or more....

The trial of vagrancy cases is illustrative. While only brief sentences of imprisonment may be imposed, the cases often bristle with thorny constitutional questions....

Beyond the problem of trials and appeals is that of the guilty plea, a problem which looms large in misdemeanor as well as in felony cases. Counsel is needed so that the accused may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution....

We must conclude, therefore, that the problems associated with misdemeanor and petty offenses often require the presence of counsel to insure the accused a fair trial. MR. JUSTICE POWELL suggests that these problems are raised even in situations where there is no prospect of imprisonment.... We need not consider the requirements of the Sixth Amendment as regards the right to counsel where loss of liberty is not involved, however, for here petitioner was in fact sentenced to jail....

We hold, therefore, that absent a knowing and intelligent waiver, no person may be imprisoned for any offense, whether classified as petty, misdemeanor, or felony, unless he was represented by counsel at his trial....

We do not sit as an ombudsman to direct state courts how to manage their affairs but only to make clear the federal constitutional requirement. How crimes should be classified is largely a state matter....

Under the rule we announce today, every judge will know when the trial of a misdemeanor starts that no imprisonment may be imposed, even though local law permits it, unless the accused is represented by counsel. He will have a measure of the seriousness and gravity of the offense and therefore know when to name a lawyer to represent the accused before the trial starts.

The run of misdemeanors will not be affected by today's ruling. But in those that end up in the actual deprivation of a person's liberty, the accused will receive the benefit of "the guiding hand of counsel" so necessary when one's liberty is in jeopardy.



Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), held that the States were required by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to furnish counsel to all indigent defendants charged with felonies. The question before us today is whether an indigent defendant convicted of an offense carrying a maximum punishment of six months' imprisonment, a fine of $1,000, or both, and sentenced to 90 days in jail, is entitled as a matter of constitutional right to the assistance of appointed counsel. The broader question is whether the Due Process Clause requires that an indigent charged with a state petty offense be afforded the right to appointed counsel.

In the case under review, the Supreme Court of Florida agreed that indigents charged with serious misdemeanors were entitled to appointed counsel, but, by a vote of four to three, it limited that right to offenses punishable by more than six months' imprisonment. The state court, in drawing a six-month line, followed the lead of this Court in Duncan v. Louisiana(1968), and in the subsequent case of Baldwin v. New York (1970), which was decided shortly after the opinion below, in which the Court held that the due process right to a trial by jury in state criminal cases was limited to cases in which the offense charged was punishable by more than six months' imprisonment. It is clear that wherever the right-to-counsel line is to be drawn, it must be drawn so that an indigent has a right to appointed counsel in all cases in which there is a due process right to a jury trial. An unskilled layman may be able to defend himself in a nonjury trial before a judge experienced in piecing together unassembled facts, but before a jury the guiding hand of counsel is needed to marshal the evidence into a coherent whole consistent with the best case on behalf of the defendant. If there is no accompanying right to counsel, the right to trial by jury becomes meaningless.

Limiting the right to jury trial to cases in which the offense charged is punishable by more than six months' imprisonment does not compel the conclusion that the indigent's right to appointed counsel must be similarly restricted. The Court's opinions in Duncan, Baldwin,... reveal that the jury-trial limitation has historic origins at common law. No such history exists to support a similar limitation of the right to counsel; to the contrary, at common law, the right to counsel was available in misdemeanor but not in felony cases. Only as recently as Gideon has an indigent in a state trial had a right to appointed counsel in felony cases. Moreover, the interest protected by the right to have guilt or innocence determined by a jury--tempering the possibly arbitrary and harsh exercise of prosecutorial and judicial power while important, is not as fundamental to the guarantee of a fair trial as is the right to counsel.

I am unable to agree with the Supreme Court of Florida that an indigent defendant, charged with a petty offense, may in every case be afforded a fair trial without the assistance of counsel. Nor can I agree with the new rule of due process, today enunciated by the Court, that "absent a knowing and intelligent waiver, no person may be imprisoned ... unless he was represented by counsel at his trial."... It seems to me that the line should not be drawn with such rigidity.

There is a middle course, between the extremes of Florida's six-month rule and the Court's rule, which comports with the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. I would adhere to the principle of due process that requires fundamental fairness in criminal trials, a principle which I believe encompasses the right to counsel in petty cases whenever the assistance of counsel is necessary to assure a fair trial....