Fontaine v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Allegheny County District Court

DOCKET NO.: 71-6757
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 411 US 213 (1973)
ARGUED: Feb 28, 1973
DECIDED: Apr 02, 1973

Samuel Huntington - for respondent
Steven M. Umin - for petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Fontaine v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 28, 1973 in Fontaine v. United States

Warren E. Burger:

We’ll hear arguments next in 71-6757, Fontaine against the United States.

Mr. Umin, you may proceed.

Steven M. Umin:

Mr. Chief Justice --

Warren E. Burger:

We’re running, as you know, a little over and we’ll hope that you will move right along with your argument.

Steven M. Umin:

I’ll do my best, Your Honor.

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This case here on writ of certiorari challenges the validity of a guilty plea, federal armed bank robbery, entered by the petitioner David X. Fontaine in Federal Court in November of 1969.

The issues that the case raises were each presented pro se by Mr. Fontaine in his motion to vacate sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255 and with the Court’s permission, I'll indulge in some oversimplification initially and define those issues as follows.

First, whether 2255 entitled the petitioner to an evidentiary hearing upon his concrete allegations which he had threw -- which show that his guilty plea was coerced.

And second and even more important, I would suggest, the threshold issue of whether petitioner’s guilty plea is void on the face of the existing record, without further evidentiary hearing, for want of a valid Sixth Amendment waiver of counsel.

The procedural history of this case is the history of inattention to to detail.

In the face of the petitioner’s concrete allegations, the police’s physical and mental abuse, United States Attorney declined even to answer those specific allegations.

The District Court nonetheless denied the petitioner’s claims summarily without a hearing, his waiver of counsel points on the ground that the petitioner had participated in a Rule 11 proceeding at guilty plea and his voluntariness claim on the same ground.

The Court of Appeals typical of the inattention paid to this case, affirmed the summary denial below in one sentence and that sentence contained an error, an error dealing with the ground of decision by the District Court.

This Court granted certiorari and appointed counsel.

I mentioned the appointment only to highlight that the absence of counsel at all prior stages of this case and most particularly at the guilty plea itself is the critical fact at hand.

From arrest through custody, through plea and sentencing, the absence of counsel raises the federal issue whether this record, the existing record made at the guilty plea, discloses a waiver of counsel compatible with the Sixth Amendment standards.

The issue must be framed precisely.

This is not a question of whether at a guilty plea proceeding there was an offer of counsel and a rejection of counsel.

We can argue about that.

I do believe that the record shows something resembling an offer and something resembling a rejection.

But the question is whether even if there was a meaningful offer of counsel and an offer of reject -- and a rejection of counsel, the circumstances of that offer and rejection disclose an understanding and intelligent waiver under the Sixth Amendment.

To quote from Carnley against Cochran, “In the absence of an understanding of an intelligent waiver anything less is not waiver.”

Let me say one word if I may about the position of that issue in this case.

It stands as point number four in the petitioner’s brief on Page 47.

In my judgment and I would respectfully submit it to the Court, it’s point number one in the case.

So, I’m something in the position of a college debater that I once heard who perhaps over-tied to the structure of his own argument, had to begin by announcing to his audience that I have four points to make, let me make the fourth one first.

The waiver of counsel point is indeed number four in the brief, but it’s number one the case.

Let me turn to the facts that surround the waiver of counsel point, making two things clear at the outset.

Absolutely nothing about that point depends upon the truth or falsity of the petitioner’s allegations pertaining to police abuse or coercion.