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Alabama v. Shelton

Brief Fact Summary. After not being offered counsel at state expense, indigent defendant represented himself in a state court assault trial that resulted in his receiving a thirty-day suspended sentence.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Under the Sixth Amendment, a suspended sentence that may result in an actual deprivation of a defendant’s liberty may not be imposed unless defendant was accorded guiding hand of counsel in the prosecution for the crime charged.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Yet in Nichols, a case involving the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Justice Souter in his concurrence in judgment expressed his understanding of why the court had required actual imprisonment as a condition for the right to counsel: the concern over reliability raised by the absence of counsel is tolerable when a defendant does not face the deprivation of his liberty.

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Facts. Defendant represented himself in a state court assault trial. Although the court warned defendant repeatedly of the disadvantages of this strategy, they did not offer him assistance of counsel at state expense. After conviction, he was given two years unsupervised probation and a thirty-day suspended sentence that he did not serve. After the lower appeals court affirmed, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the defendant’s suspended sentence and vacated the probation. The State of Alabama then sought certiorari.

Issue. Does the Sixth Amendment right to counsel permit a state to impose a suspended sentence even though the ineffectively-assisted defendant was not actually incarcerated?

Held. No. The Alabama Supreme Court’s vacation of the suspended sentence was affirmed.
Because the suspended sentence could potentially result in an actual deprivation of the indigent defendant’s liberty, he needed to have received adequate assistance of counsel in his trial for assault.

The court did not view the suspended sentence as a contingent penalty at the violation of probation capable of being cured by giving the defendant an attorney at subsequent probationary hearings. They viewed it as a prison term that would be imposed as a result of the assault trial at which he had ineffective assistance of counsel, and thus his Sixth Amendment rights were violated.

Dissent. J. Scalia. The established “Actual Imprisonment” rule requires that absent a knowing and intelligent waiver, a defendant may not merely have faced the possibility of imprisonment, but have actually been imprisoned to be able to bring a Sixth Amendment claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Discussion. This decision results in courts having to offer to appoint counsel at state expense to indigents whenever there is a possibility that the offense with which they are charged may result in prison time. This is the case even if they are not sent directly to prison.

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