Iowa v. Tovar

RESPONDENT: Felipe Edgardo Tovar
LOCATION: Pennsylvania General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 02-1541
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Iowa Supreme Court

CITATION: 541 US 77 (2004)
GRANTED: Sep 30, 2003
ARGUED: Jan 21, 2004
DECIDED: Mar 08, 2004

Malcolm L. Stewart - argued the cause for Petitioner, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae
Thomas J. Miller - argued the cause for Petitioner
Theresa R. Wilson - argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

Felipe E. Tovar was charged with drunk-driving in Iowa three times in four years. Tovar pleaded guilty both times and waived his right to an attorney the first time. The third time, because Iowa law increases sentencing for successive drunk-driving, Tovar faced up to five years in prison. Tovar argued that his first conviction was an invalid waiver of his 6th Amendment right to counsel and should not increase his third sentence. The waiver was invalid, Tovar argued, because the judge did not warn him of the consequences of entering a guilty plea without an attorney. The Iowa district court rejected Tovar's argument and sentenced him to 30 days in jail. The court of appeals affirmed. The Iowa Supreme Court reversed.


Given the 6th Amendment's right to counsel, to what extent must a defendant be informed of the consequences of pleading guilty while waiving the right to an attorney?

Media for Iowa v. Tovar

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 21, 2004 in Iowa v. Tovar

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 08, 2004 in Iowa v. Tovar

William H. Rehnquist:

On Iowa versus Tovar will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The Sixth Amendment secures the criminal defendants who face incarceration the right to counsel at all stages of the criminal process.

That right includes counsel's aid prior to entering a guilty plea.

The Iowa Supreme Court in the case before us held that the Sixth Amendment requires the Trial Court to give defendants who seek to plead guilty unaided by counsel two specific admonitions: first, that foregoing the aid of counsel entails the risk that a tenable defense will be overlooked, and second, that an uncounseled defendant loses the opportunity to gain an independent opinion on whether it is wise to plead guilty.

We hold that neither warning 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.

The defendant respondent, Felipe Edgardo Tovar, was charged in 1996, again in 1998, and for a third time in 2000 with driving under the influence of alcohol in Iowa Code OWI, operating while intoxicated.

He pled guilty in 1996 without counsel and again in 1998 with counsel.

In 2000, as a third-time offender, his punishment could be enhanced from an aggravated misdemeanor to a felony.

To avoid that enhancement, Tovar through counsel asked the court not to account his first conviction because it was unattended by adequate information on his right to counsel.

At that 1996 first OWI plea hearing, Tovar informed the court as he earlier did in an initial appearance that he wished to plea guilty and to proceed without consel.

Inquiring into the voluntariness of Tovar’s plea, the court told Tovar that if he elected to go to trial, he would be entitled to a jury, to counsel's assistance, and to other trial rights.

The court further informed Tovar of the maximum and minimum penalties for a first OWI conviction.

Next, the court explained that before accepting Tovar’s plea, the courts had to assure that Tovar was in fact guilty of the two elements of the charge: first, operating motor vehicle in Iowa, second, doing do while intoxicated.

Tovar confirmed that he was driving in Iowa and that an intoxilyzer test revealed a blood alcohol level that exceeded the legal limit twice over.

The court then accepted Tovar’s guilty plea and the next month sentenced him to the minimum term of two days in jail and a fine.

The Iowa Supreme Court reviewing Tovar’s third OWI conviction held that because he was not given the two specific warnings just mentioned his first conviction could not be used to increase his third sentence.

We reverse that determination.

A waiver of counsel must be voluntary and intelligent but we have not prescribed any formula or script to be read to a defendant who states that he elects to plea guilty without counsel.

The information the defendant must have to make an intelligent election between counsel and self-representation, our decisions indicate, will depend on a range of case specific factors including the defendant’s educational sophistication, the complex or easily grasp nature of the charge and the stage of the proceeding.

In prescribing scripted admonitions and holding them necessary in every guilty plea instance, the Iowa Supreme Court overlooked this Court’s guiding decisions which described a pragmatic approach.

Less formal warnings generally suffice pretrial, we have observed, because at that stage, the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation are less substantial when they are at trial where a defendant must cope with rules of procedure and evidence, the subtleties of jury selection, witness examination and cross-examination, objections to prosecutor's questions, and much more.

Tovar, who bears the burden of proof that his guilty plea was inadequately informed, has never stated just what additional information counsel could have provided given the simplicity of the OWI charge he faced, nor has Tovar ever asserted that he was in fact unaware of his rights to counseled at the plea stage or that he did not understand the nature of the charge or the range of possible punishment.

The specific admonitions the Iowa Supreme Court mandated moreover might cause a defendant to wonder whether the court thinks he has a good defense, when in reality he does not.

We note finally that stage of free to adopt any guidelines to the acceptance of an uncounceled plea they deemed useful.

We hold only that the two specific admonitions the Iowa Supreme Court ordered are not commanded by the Federal Constitution.

The Court’s opinion is unanimous.