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 in prison.
    • The charge was a misdemeanor, not a felony.
  • At Trial, Shelton represented himself.
    • 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 hearing.
        • Only a small percentage of people get their probation revoked.
  • The Alabama Supreme Court overturned the conviction. The prosecutor appealed.
    • The Alabama Supreme Court found that:
      • 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 misdemeanors.
      • 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.
    • The prosecutor 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 pay anyway!
  • 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.