Alabama v. Shelton
Annotate this Case
535 U.S. 654 (2002)
OCTOBER TERM, 2001
ALABAMA v. SHELTON
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ALABAMA No. 00-1214. Argued February 19, 2002-Decided May 20, 2002
Defendant-respondent Shelton represented himself in an Alabama Circuit Court criminal trial. The court repeatedly warned Shelton about the problems self-representation entailed, but at no time offered him assistance of counsel at state expense. He was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to a 30-day jail term, which the trial court immediately suspended, placing Shelton on two years' unsupervised probation. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed Shelton's suspended jail sentence, reasoning that this Court's decisions in Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U. S. 25, and Scott v. Illinois, 440 U. S. 367, require provision of counsel in any petty offense, misdemeanor, or felony prosecution, Argersinger, 407 U. S., at 37, "that actually leads to imprisonment even for a brief period," id., at 33. The State Supreme Court concluded, inter alia, that because a defendant may not be imprisoned absent provision of counsel, Shelton's suspended sentence could never be activated and was therefore invalid.
Held: A suspended sentence that may "end up in the actual deprivation of a person's liberty" may not be imposed unless the defendant was accorded "the guiding hand of counsel" in the prosecution for the crime charged. Argersinger, 407 U. S., at 40. Pp. 660-674.
(a) The controlling rule is that "absent a knowing and intelligent waiver, no person may be imprisoned for any offense ... unless he was represented by counsel at his triaL" Argersinger, 407 U. S., at 37. Pp. 661-662.
(b) Applying this "actual imprisonment" rule, the Court rejects the argument of its invited amicus curiae that failure to appoint counsel to an indigent defendant does not bar the imposition of a suspended or probationary sentence upon conviction of a misdemeanor, even though the defendant might be incarcerated in the event probation is revoked. Pp. 662-672.
(1) The Sixth Amendment does not permit activation of a suspended sentence upon an indigent defendant's violation of the terms of his probation where the State did not provide him counsel during the prosecution of the offense for which he is imprisoned. A suspended sentence is a prison term imposed for the offense of conviction. Once the prison term is triggered, the defendant is incarcerated not for the probation violation, but for the underlying offense. The uncounseled
conviction at that point "result[s] in imprisonment," Nichols v. United States, 511 U. S. 738, 746; it "end[s] up in the actual deprivation of a person's liberty," Argersinger, 407 U. S., at 40. This is precisely what the Sixth Amendment, as interpreted in Argersinger and Scott, does not allow. P. 662.
(2) The Court rejects the first of two grounds on which amicus resists this reasoning, i. e., amicus' attempt to align this case with Nichols and with Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U. S. 778. Those decisions do not stand for the broad proposition that sequential proceedings must be analyzed separately for Sixth Amendment purposes, with the right to state-appointed counsel triggered only in proceedings that result in immediate actual imprisonment. The dispositive factor in Gagnon and Nichols was not whether incarceration occurred immediately or only after some delay. Rather, the critical point was that the defendant had a recognized right to counsel when adjudicated guilty of the felony for which he was imprisoned. See Nichols, 511 U. S., at 743, n. 9. Here, revocation of probation would trigger a prison term imposed for a misdemeanor of which Shelton was found guilty without the aid of counsel, not for a felony conviction for which the right to counsel is unquestioned. See id., at 747; Gagnon, 411 U. S., at 789. Far from supporting amicus' position, Gagnon and Nichols simply highlight that the Sixth Amendment inquiry trains on the stage of the proceedings corresponding to Shelton's Circuit Court trial, where his guilt was adjudicated, eligibility for imprisonment established, and prison sentence determined. Nichols is further distinguishable because the Court there applied a less exacting standard allowing a trial court, once guilt has been established, to increase the defendant's sentence based simply on evidence of the underlying conduct that gave rise to his previous conviction, 511 U. S., at 748, even if he had never been charged with that conduct, Williams v. New York, 337 U. S. 241, and even if he had been acquitted of a misdemeanor with the aid of appointed counsel, United States v. Watts, 519 U. S. 148, 157. That relaxed standard has no application here, where the question is whether the defendant may be jailed absent a conviction credited as reliable because the defendant had access to counsel. Pp. 662-665.
(3) Also unpersuasive is amicus' contention that practical considerations weigh against extension of the Sixth Amendment appointedcounsel right to a defendant in Shelton's situation. Based on figures suggesting that conditional sentences are commonly imposed but rarely activated, amicus argues that the appropriate rule would permit imposition of a suspended sentence on an uncounseled defendant and require appointment of counsel, if at all, only at the probation revocation stage, when incarceration is imminent. That regime would unduly reduce the
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