Scott v. Illinois

United States Supreme Court

440 U.S. 367, 99 S.Ct. 1158, 59 L.Ed.2d 383 (1979)


      In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Supreme Court held that indigent defendants facing felony charges in state court are entitled to court-appointed counsel at public expense. In 1972, in Argersinger v. Hamlin, the Court extended the Gideon decision to encompass misdemeanors punishable by jail terms. However, left unsettled was the question of whether the right to appointed counsel applies in a case where an indigent defendant is accused of a misdemeanor that, although punishable by incarceration, is actually punished only by a fine. In the instant case, the Court addresses this issue.


Mr. Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.


      ... Petitioner Scott was convicted of theft and fined $50 after a bench trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill. His conviction was affirmed by the state intermediate appellate court and then by the Supreme Court of Illinois, over Scott’s contention that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution required that Illinois provide trial counsel to him at its expense.


      Petitioner Scott was convicted of shoplifting merchandise valued at less than $150. The applicable Illinois statute set the maximum penalty for such an offense at a $500 fine or one year in jail, or both. The petitioner argues that a line of this Court’s cases culminating in Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 92 S.Ct. 2006, 32 L.Ed.2d 530 (1972), requires State provision of counsel whenever imprisonment is an authorized penalty.


      The Supreme Court of Illinois rejected this contention. ...


      There is considerable doubt that the Sixth Amendment itself, as originally drafted by the Framers of the Bill of Rights, contemplated any guarantee other than the right of an accused in a criminal prosecution in a federal court to employ a lawyer to assist in his defense. In Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 53 S.Ct. 55, 77 L.Ed. 158 (1932), the Court held that Alabama was obligated to appoint counsel for the Scottsboro defendants, phrasing the inquiry as “whether the defendants were in substance denied the right of counsel, and if so, whether such denial infringes the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”


      Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 62 S.Ct. 1252, 86 L.Ed. 1595 (1942), held that not every indigent defendant accused in a state criminal prosecution was entitled to appointment of counsel. A determination had to be made in each individual case whether failure to appoint counsel was a denial of fundamental fairness. Betts was in turn overruled in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799 (1963). ... In Gideon, Betts was described as holding “that a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony did not necessarily violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. ...”


      Several terms later the Court held in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 88 S.Ct. 1444, 20 L.Ed.2d 491 (1968), that the right to jury trial in federal court guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment was applicable to the States by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held, however: “It is doubtless true that there is a category of petty crimes or offenses which is not subject to the Sixth Amendment jury trial provision and should not be subject to the Fourteenth Amendment jury trial requirement here applied to the States. Crimes carrying possible penalties up to six months do not require a jury trial if they otherwise qualify as petty offenses. ...” In Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66, 69, 26 L.Ed.2d 437, 90 S.Ct. 1886 (1970), the controlling opinion of Mr. Justice White concluded that “no offense can be deemed ‘petty’ for purposes of the right to trial by jury where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized.”


      In Argersinger the State of Florida urged that a similar dichotomy be employed in the right-to-counsel area: Any offense punishable by less than six months in jail should not require appointment of counsel for an indigent defendant. The Argersinger Court rejected this analogy, however, observing that “the right to trial by jury has a different genealogy and is brigaded with a system of trial to a judge alone.”


      The number of separate opinions in Gideon, Duncan, Baldwin, and Argersinger, suggests that constitutional line drawing becomes more difficult as the reach of the Constitution is extended further, and as efforts are made to transpose lines from one area of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence to another. The process of incorporation creates special difficulties, for the state and federal contexts are often different and application of the same principle may have ramifications distinct in degree and kind. The range of human conduct regulated by state criminal laws is much broader than that of the federal criminal laws, particularly on the “petty” offense part of the spectrum. As a matter of constitutional adjudication, we are, therefore, less willing to extrapolate an already extended line when, although the general nature of the principle sought to be applied is clear, its precise limits and their ramifications become less so. We have now in our decided cases departed from the literal meaning of the Sixth Amendment. And we cannot fall back on the common law as it existed prior to the enactment of that Amendment, since it perversely gave less in the way of right to counsel to accused felons than to those accused of misdemeanors.


      In Argersinger the Court rejected arguments that social cost or a lack of available lawyers militated against its holding, in some part because it thought these arguments were factually incorrect. But they were rejected in much larger part because of the Court’s conclusion that incarceration was so severe a sanction that it should not be imposed as a result of a criminal trial unless an indigent defendant had been offered appointed counsel to assist in his defense, regardless of the cost to the States implicit in such a rule. The Court in its opinion repeatedly referred to trials “where an accused is deprived of his liberty,” and to “a case that actually leads to imprisonment even for a brief period.” The Chief Justice in his opinion concurring in the result also observed that “any deprivation of liberty is a serious matter.” …


      Although the intentions of the Argersinger Court are not unmistakably clear from its opinion, we conclude today that Argersinger did indeed delimit the constitutional right to appointed counsel in state criminal proceedings. Even were the matter res nova, we believe that the central premise of Argersinger—that actual imprisonment is a penalty different in kind from fines or the mere threat of imprisonment—is eminently sound and warrants adoption of actual imprisonment as the line defining the constitutional right to appointment of counsel. Argersinger has proved reasonably workable, whereas any extension would create confusion and impose unpredictable, but necessarily substantial, costs on 50 quite diverse States. We therefore hold that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution require only that no indigent criminal defendant be sentenced to a term of imprisonment unless the State has afforded him the right to assistance of appointed counsel in his defense. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Illinois is accordingly affirmed.



Mr. Justice Powell concurring. ...



Mr. Justice Brennan, with whom Mr. Justice Marshall and Mr. Justice Stevens join, dissenting.


      ... The Court in an opinion that at best ignores the basic principles of prior decisions, affirms Scott’s conviction without counsel because he was sentenced only to pay a fine. In my view, the plain wording of the Sixth Amendment and the Court’s precedents compel the conclusion that Scott’s uncounseled conviction violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments and should be reversed. ...


      The apparent reason for the Court’s adoption of the “actual imprisonment” standard for all misdemeanors is concern for the economic burden that an “authorized imprisonment” standard might place on the States. But, with all respect, that concern is both irrelevant and speculative. The Court’s opinion turns the reasoning of Argersinger on its head. It restricts the right to counsel, perhaps the most fundamental Sixth Amendment right, more narrowly than the admittedly less fundamental right to jury trial. The abstract pretext that “constitutional line drawing becomes more difficult as the reach of the Constitution is extended further, and as efforts are made to transpose lines from one area of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence to another,” cannot camouflage the anomalous result the Court reaches. Today’s decision reminds one of Mr. Justice Black’s description of Betts v. Brady: “an anachronism when handed down” that “ma[kes] an abrupt break with its own well-considered precedents.”



Mr. Justice Blackmun, dissenting. ...