Alabama v. Shelton 535 U.S. 654, 122 S. Ct. 1764, 152 L. Ed.2d 888 (2002)
Shelton was arrested and
charged with assault, a crime that carried a maximum penalty of one year
The charge was a
misdemeanor, not a felony.
At Trial, Shelton represented
The judge repeatedly told
Shelton that representing oneself is dangerous, yet never explicitly
offered to appoint a legal counsel.
The Trial Court convicted
Shelton of assault and gave him a suspended sentence. He appealed.
The Appellate Court upheld the
conviction. Shelton appealed.
The Appellate Court found
that it was not compulsory to give Shelton an appointed counsel because
the sentence didn't result in any jail time.
It would be expensive and a
waste of resources to require a counsel for all minor cases.
The prosecution had offered
to appoint a counsel at a theoretical future probation revocation
Only a small percentage of
people get their probation revoked.
The Alabama Supreme Court
overturned the conviction. The prosecutor appealed.
The Alabama Supreme Court
A defendant may not be
sentenced to a term of imprisonment absent provision of counsel, and
For purposes of this rule,
a suspended sentence constitutes a "term of imprisonment,"
even though incarceration is not immediate or inevitable.
The US Supreme Court affirmed
the Alabama Supreme Court.
The US Supreme Court found a
suspended sentence that may result in incarceration may not be imposed if
defendant did not have counsel at trial.
A sentence is a sentence,
even if it is suspended.
The US Supreme Court extended
the right to be appointed counsel to all cases that even potentially result in imprisonment, even if they are just
This case was a reversal of
Scott v. Illinois (440 U.S. 367
(1979)) which only justified an appointed counsel in cases where actual
incarceration was the punishment.
unsuccessfully argued that the standard should be the same as it is for
the requirement of a jury trial.
But the Court found that
misdemeanors can be just as complicated as felonies, and that the jury
trial requirement had a historical basis, but the right to counsel was
not a historical right, therefore the analogy was improper.
The Court found that
providing counsel only at a probation revocation hearing is insufficient
for due process because you can't
argue the facts of the case or put on new witnesses at that stage. The
record is already closed.
This case left open the
possibility of not providing counsel for cases in which the prosecution
only seeks a fine. But it is pretty rare that the prosecution is
satisfied with only seeking a fine against a defendant who is too broke to
Btw, if you commit a crime and
the prosecution doesn't recommend jail time because it is your first
offense, and you don't get a lawyer and get convicted. Then later you do
it again and the prosecution recommends jail time because it is your
second offense, you cannot argue
that the first conviction should not be held against you because you
didn't have counsel.
This is also true in cases
where you get a fine, and if you don't pay the fine you get sent to
prison. The prison time is a result of the contempt of court in not
paying the fine, not the original crime itself. Therefore you do not
have a right to counsel in cases where the only way you can get prison
time is by not paying the fine.