Alabama v. Shelton

LOCATION: Oklahoma School District

DOCKET NO.: 00-1214
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Alabama

CITATION: 535 US 654 (2002)
ARGUED: Feb 19, 2002
DECIDED: May 20, 2002

Bill Pryor - for petitioner
Charles Fried - on behalf of amicus curiae in opposition to the judgment below
Steven Duke - argued the cause for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging affirmance
Steven B. Duke - on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as amicus curiae, supporting the Respondent
William H. Mills - Argued the cause for the respondent
William H. Pryor, Jr. - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Lereed Shelton represented himself in an Alabama Circuit Court criminal trial. The court warned Shelton about the difficulties that self-representation entailed, but at no time offered him assistance of counsel at state expense. Ultimately, Shelton was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to a 30-day jail term, which the trial court suspended, placing Shelton on two years' unsupervised probation. Shelton appealed on Sixth Amendment grounds. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed Shelton's suspended jail sentence, reasoning that U.S. Supreme 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, "that actually leads to imprisonment even for a brief period." The court concluded that, because a defendant may not be imprisoned absent provision of counsel, Shelton's suspended sentence could never be activated and was therefore invalid.


Does the Sixth Amendment right to appointed counsel, as defined in Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, and Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367, apply to a defendant who was sentenced to a suspended sentence?

Media for Alabama v. Shelton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 19, 2002 in Alabama v. Shelton

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 20, 2002 in Alabama v. Shelton

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court number 00-1214, Alabama against Shelton will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns the Sixth Amendment Right of an indigent misdemeanor defendant to the assistants of court appointed counsel.

Defendant-respondent, LeReed Shelton was convicted in an Alabama Court of third-degree assault after a jury trial at which he appeared without counsel.

The Trial Judge sentenced Shelton to monetary penalties plus a suspended 30-day jail term to be activated if Shelton violated the terms of a two-year probationary period.

On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and the monetary penalties but invalidated the suspended jail sentence.

Jail time even if suspended may not be imposed on a defendant too poor to hire a lawyer the Alabama Supreme Court held unless they paid counsel is engaged to represent him in the prosecution for the crime charged.

We affirm that judgment.

Three positions are before us; first, Shelton asked us simply to uphold the Alabama Supreme Court’s judgment and that is what today’s decision does; second, the State of Alabama now agrees with Shelton that the Sixth Amendment which guarantees the right to counsel precludes the activation of suspended sentence to jail a defendant uncounseled to trial, but the state maintained it is compatible with the constitution merely to impose a jail term, one that will never be executed as a hook on which to pay probationary punishment.

That novel position was not urged in Shelton’s case until Alabama filed it to reply brief in this court.

We are a court of review, not a first view and therefore, do not pass an Alabama’s totally asserted position.

We appointed a member of the bar of this court to argue as a friend of a court, a third position that failure to appoint council to an indigent defendant does not bar the imposition of a suspended sentence upon conviction of a misdemeanor, even though the defendant might be incarcerated in the event probation is revoked.

We now reject that third position concluding that it is inconsistent with our pathmarking 1972 decision Argersinger v. Hamlin, which held that defense counsel must be appointed in any criminal prosecution whether classified as petty, misdemeanor or felony that actually leads to imprisonment even for a brief period.

When a suspended sentence is activated by a probation violation, the defendant is jailed not for the probation violation but for the underlying offense.

The uncounseled conviction at that point results in imprisonment and that, our opinion, explains is just what the Sixth Amendment forbids.

The friend of the court argument we invited suggests that it is fair and economical to allow imposition of a suspended sentence on an uncounseled defendant and deal with the right to counsel if it all only later when a defendant initially allowed to remain at liberty faces revocation of his probation.

We resist the front end segmentation proposed and decline to speculate on what kind of a hearing Alabama might sometime hence created for the backend probation revocation situation.

Looking to the here and now, the character of the probation revocation hearing currently afforded in Alabama is not in doubt.

It is an informal affair at which the defendant has neither a right to counsel nor an opportunity to challenge the validity or reliability of the original conviction.

A hearing is so timed and structured cannot compensate for the absence of trial counsel.

Our decision, it is strenuously argued, will impose a heavy toll on state criminal justice systems.

Most states, however, under their own constitutions or laws provide a right to counsel more generous that the federal constitution affords.

The cost and impact of today’s judgment is therefore likely to be more modest and projected.

We note too that a pretrial probation system employed in many states allows a supervised cuase of rehabilitation without diminishing the constitutional imperative that no person may be imprisoned for an offense unless he was represented by counsel at his trial.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Thomas join.