United States v. Bryant

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Michael Bryant, Jr.
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of Montana

DOCKET NO.: 15-420
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 579 US (2016)
GRANTED: Dec 14, 2015
ARGUED: Apr 19, 2016
DECIDED: Jun 13, 2016

Elizabeth Prelogar – Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the petitioner
Steven C. Babcock – for the respondent

Facts of the case

In June 2011, Michael Bryant, Jr. was convicted of two counts of domestic assault by a habitual offender in violation of 18 U.S.C. 117(a), a federal law that criminalizes domestic assault by any person who has been convicted of at least two domestic violence offenses in federal, state, or Indian tribal court. For the predicate offenses, the prosecution relied on Bryant’s previous domestic abuse convictions in Northern Cheyenne Tribal Court. Bryant moved to dismiss the indictment and argued that the use of the tribal court convictions as predicate convictions for the charge violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights because he was not afforded counsel in the tribal court proceedings, so his convictions would have violated the Sixth Amendment if they had occurred in state or federal court. The district court denied the motion, and Bryant pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of the motion to dismiss. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and held that an uncounseled conviction that violated the Sixth Amendment could not be used as a predicate offense for the purpose of a charge under Section 117(a).


Does an uncounseled conviction in tribal court used to satisfy the predicate offense requirement of 18 U.S.C. 117(a), which criminalizes domestic assault by a person who has been convicted of at least two domestic violence offenses in federal, state, or tribal court, violate the Sixth Amendment?

Media for United States v. Bryant

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 19, 2016 in United States v. Bryant

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 13, 2016 in United States v. Bryant

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Today’s orders of the Court have been duly entered and certified and filed with the clerk.

Justice Ginsberg has our opinion this morning in case 15-420, United States versus Bryant.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Compared to all other groups in the United States, Native American women experience the highest rates of domestic violence.

Efforts to deal with the problem have been hindered by the complicated patchwork of federal, state and tribal laws applicable on Indian lands.

In brief, Indians who committed crimes of domestic violence against other Indians effectively received sentences no greater than one year unless they severely injured or killed their victims.

To ratter-up the punishment of serial domestic violence perpetrators in Indian country, Congress created the federal felony of domestic assault by a habitual offender.

Title 18 U.S.C. §117(a), makes it a federal crime for any person to commit a domestic assault within Indian country if the person has at least two prior convictions for domestic violence in federal, state or Indian tribal court proceedings.

Respondent Michael Bryant, Jr. is a man given to abusing women.

A member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Bryant has a record of over 100 tribal court misdemeanor convictions, at least five of them for domestic assault.

For most of these assaults, the tribal court sentenced Bryant to imprisonment for terms that never exceeded one year.

In 2011, Bryant was again arrested on charges of assaulting two more women.

For those attacks he was indicted in federal court on two counts of domestic assault by a habitual offender.

Represented by appointed counsel in his federal prosecution, Bryant sought dismissal of the indictment.

His tribal court convictions should not count as predicate offenses for §117(a) purposes, Bryant maintained because he was not represented by an attorney in the tribal court proceedings.

The district court rejected his argument. Bryant then pleaded guilty to both habitual offender counts but reserved the question, whether tribal court judgments can be used to satisfy §117(a) prior convictions requirement.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit answered no, tribal court convictions do not count.

Therefore, the Appeals Court reversed Bryant’s federal convictions and directed the district court to dismiss the indictment.

The Sixth Amendment right to counsel guarantees indigent criminal defendants in state and federal court appointed counsel in any case in which a prison sentence is imposed.

But we have long held the Bill of Rights including the Sixth Amendment does not govern tribal court proceedings.

Instead, the Indian Civil Rights Act does.

That act requires appointed counsel only when a tribal court sentence exceeds one year because Bryant never received a sentence greater than one year, his tribal court convictions complied with the Indian Civil Rights Act and were therefore valid when entered.

Bryant so acknowledges.

The question his case presents, is it permissible to use un-counseled tribal court convictions obtained in full compliance with the Indian Civil Rights Act to establish the prior crimes predicate of the federal offense defined in §117(a).

Our answer is yes.

It is unconstitutional, we have held, to use a conviction obtained in violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel to support guilt or enhanced punishment for a later offense.

In Nichols v. United States, we added an important qualification where a prior un-counseled misdemeanor conviction was valid under the Sixth Amendment because only a fine not a sentence of imprisonment was imposed, reliance on that conviction to enhance the punishment for a later crime does not violate the Sixth Amendment.

Bryant contends and the Ninth Circuit agreed that the qualification stated in Nichols does not control his case.

Because Bryant’s un-counseled tribal court convictions would have violated the Sixth Amendment if obtained in state or federal court, Bryant argues they should not count as predicate convictions in a §117(a) prosecution.

We disagree.

Convictions valid when entered, Nichols instructs, retain their validity when used as predicate offenses in a later prosecution.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Bryant was denied no right to appointed counsel in tribal court because he had none and his Sixth Amendment right was honored in his federal prosecution.

He therefore suffered no deprivation of a right to counsel.

Compliance with the Indian Civil Rights Act safeguards, we add, sufficiently ensures the reliability of tribal court convictions therefore use of those convictions as predicate offenses in a §117(a) prosecution does not offend the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

We accordingly and unanimously reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion.