Iowa v. Tovar
541 U.S. 77 (2004)

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  • Syllabus
  • Opinion (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

SYLLABUS
OCTOBER TERM, 2003
IOWA V. TOVAR


SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

IOWA v. TOVAR

certiorari to the supreme court of iowa

No. 02–1541. Argued January 21, 2004—Decided March 8, 2004

At respondent Tovar’s November 1996 arraignment for operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol (OWI), in response to the trial court’s questions, Tovar affirmed that he wanted to represent himself and to plead guilty. Conducting the guilty plea colloquy required by the Iowa Rules of Criminal Procedure, the court explained that, if Tovar pleaded not guilty, he would be entitled to a speedy and public jury trial where he would have the right to counsel who could help him select a jury, question and cross-examine witnesses, present evidence, and make arguments on his behalf. By pleading guilty, the court cautioned, Tovar would give up his right to a trial and his rights at that trial to be represented by counsel, to remain silent, to the presumption of innocence, and to subpoena witnesses and compel their testimony. The court then informed Tovar of the maximum and minimum penalties for an OWI conviction, and explained that, before accepting a guilty plea, the court had to assure itself that Tovar was in fact guilty of the charged offense. To that end, the court informed Tovar of the two elements of the OWI charge: The defendant must have (1) operated a motor vehicle in Iowa (2) while intoxicated. Tovar confirmed, first, that on the date in question, he was operating a motor vehicle in Iowa and, second, that he did not dispute the result of the intoxilyzer test showing his blood alcohol level exceeded the legal limit nearly twice over. The court then accepted his guilty plea and, at a hearing the next month, imposed the minimum sentence of two days in jail and a fine. In 1998, Tovar was again charged with OWI, this time as a second offense, an aggravated misdemeanor under Iowa law. Represented by counsel in that proceeding, he pleaded guilty. In 2000, Tovar was charged with third-offense OWI, a class “D” felony under Iowa law. Again represented by counsel, Tovar pleaded not guilty to the felony charge. Counsel moved to preclude use of Tovar’s first (1996) OWI conviction to enhance his 2000 offense from an aggravated misdemeanor to a third-offense felony. Tovar maintained that his 1996 waiver of counsel was invalid—not fully knowing, intelligent, and voluntary—because he was never made aware by the court of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation. The trial court denied the motion, found Tovar guilty, and sentenced him on the OWI third-offense charge. The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed, but the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed and remanded for entry of judgment without consideration of Tovar’s first OWI conviction. Holding that the colloquy preceding acceptance of Tovar’s 1996 guilty plea had been constitutionally inadequate, Iowa’s high court ruled, as here at issue, that two warnings not given to Tovar are essential to the “knowing and intelligent” waiver of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel at the plea stage: The defendant must be advised specifically that waiving counsel’s assistance in deciding whether to plead guilty (1) entails the risk that a viable defense will be overlooked and (2) deprives him of the opportunity to obtain an independent opinion on whether, under the facts and applicable law, it is wise to plead guilty.

Held: Neither warning ordered by the Iowa Supreme Court is mandated by the Sixth Amendment. The constitutional requirement is satisfied when the trial court informs the accused of the nature of the charges against him, of his right to be counseled regarding his plea, and of the range of allowable punishments attendant upon the entry of a guilty plea. Pp. 8–15.

   (a) The Sixth Amendment secures to a defendant facing incarceration the right to counsel at all “critical stages” of the criminal process, see, e.g., Maine v. Moulton,474 U. S. 159, 170, including a plea hearing, White v. Maryland,373 U. S. 59, 60 (per curiam). Because Tovar received a two-day prison term for his first OWI conviction, he had a right to counsel both at the plea stage and at trial had he elected to contest the charge. Argersinger v. Hamlin,407 U. S. 25, 34, 37. Although an accused may choose to forgo representation, any waiver of the right to counsel must be knowing, voluntary, and intelligent, see Johnson v. Zerbst,304 U. S. 458, 464. The information a defendant must possess in order to make an intelligent election depends on a range of case-specific factors, including his education or sophistication, the complex or easily grasped nature of the charge, and the stage of the proceeding. See Johnson, 304 U. S., at 464. Although warnings of the pitfalls of proceeding to trial uncounseled must be “rigorous[ly]” conveyed, Patterson v. Illinois,487 U. S. 285, 298; see Faretta v. California,422 U. S. 806, 835, a less searching or formal colloquy may suffice at earlier stages of the criminal process, 487 U. S., at 299. In Patterson, this Court described a pragmatic approach to right-to-counsel waivers, one that asks “what purposes a lawyer can serve at the particular stage of the proceedings in question, and what assistance [counsel] could provide to an accused at that stage.” Id., at 298. Less rigorous warnings are required pretrial because, at that stage, “the full dangers and disadvantages of self-representation … are less substantial and more obvious to an accused than they are at trial.” Id., at 299. Pp. 8–11.

   (b) The Sixth Amendment does not compel the two admonitions ordered by the Iowa Supreme Court. “[T]he law ordinarily considers a waiver knowing, intelligent, and sufficiently aware if the defendant fully understands the nature of the right and how it would likely apply in general in the circumstances … .” United States v. Ruiz,536 U. S. 622, 629. Even if the defendant lacked a full and complete appreciation of all of the consequences flowing from his waiver, the State may nevertheless prevail if it shows that the information provided to the defendant satisfied the constitutional minimum. Patterson, 487 U. S., at 294. The Iowa high court gave insufficient consideration to this Court’s guiding decisions. In prescribing scripted admonitions and holding them necessary in every guilty plea instance, that court overlooked this Court’s observations that the information a defendant must have to waive counsel intelligently will depend upon the particular facts and circumstances in each case, Johnson, 304 U. S., at 464. Moreover, as Tovar acknowledges, in a collateral attack on an uncounseled conviction, it is the defendant’s burden to prove that he did not competently and intelligently waive his right to counsel. Tovar has never claimed that he did not fully understand the 1996 OWI charge or the range of punishment for that crime prior to pleading guilty. He has never “articulate[d] with precision” the additional information counsel could have provided, given the simplicity of the charge. See Patterson, 487 U. S., at 294. Nor does he assert that he was unaware of his right to be counseled prior to and at his arraignment. Before this Court, he suggests only that he may have been under the mistaken belief that he had a right to counsel at trial, but not if he was, instead, going to plead guilty. Given “the particular facts and circumstances surrounding [this] case,” Johnson, 304 U. S., at 464, it is far from clear that warnings of the kind required by the Iowa Supreme Court would have enlightened Tovar’s decision whether to seek counsel or to represent himself. In a case so straightforward, the two admonitions at issue might confuse or mislead a defendant more than they would inform him, i.e., the warnings might be misconstrued to convey that a meritorious defense exists or that the defendant could plead to a lesser charge, when neither prospect is a realistic one. If a defendant delays his plea in the vain hope that counsel could uncover a tenable basis for contesting or reducing the criminal charge, the prompt disposition of the case will be impeded, and the resources of either the State (if the defendant is indigent) or the defendant himself (if he is financially ineligible for appointed counsel) will be wasted. States are free to adopt by statute, rule, or decision any guides to the acceptance of an uncounseled plea they deem useful, but the Federal Constitution does not require the two admonitions here in controversy. Pp. 11–15.

656 N. W. 2d 112, reversed and remanded.

   Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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