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Gagnon v. Scarpelli

    Brief Fact Summary. The respondent, Scarpelli (the “respondent”), a felony probationer, was arrested after committing a burglary. The respondent’s probation was revoked without a hearing and he was not represented by counsel. He filed a petition for habeas corpus and the District Court concluded that revocation of probation without a hearing and without counsel was a denial of due process. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The probationer was entitled to a hearing, but the State is not constitutionally required to appoint an attorney to indigent defendants at parole and probation revocation hearings.

    Facts. The respondent pleaded guilty in July 1973 to a charge of armed robbery in Wisconsin. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but the sentence was suspended and he was placed on probation for seven years. On August 6, 1973, the respondent and another man were apprehended in the course of committing a burglary of a house. The respondent’s probation was revoked without a hearing and without being represented by counsel. The respondent filed a petition for habeas corpus.

    Issue. Whether a previously sentenced probationer is entitled to a hearing when his probation is revoked and, if so, whether he is entitled to be represented by appointed counsel at such a hearing?

    Held. Probationer is entitled to a hearing, but the constitution does not obligate the State to provide appointed counsel for probation and parole revocation hearings. A determination of whether a probationer/parolee is entitled to court appointed counsel at revocation hearings should be evaluated on a case by case basis.

    Dissent. Justice William Douglas (“J. Douglas”) observed, “I believe that due process requires the appointment of counsel in this case because of the claim that respondent’s confession of the burglary was made under duress.”

    Discussion. In first discussing whether a probationer is entitled to a hearing before his probation is revoked, the Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”) discussed its recent holding that, even though the revocation of parole is not a part of the criminal prosecution, the loss of liberty entailed is a serious deprivation requiring that the parolee be accorded due process. The Supreme Court’s majority ultimately concludes that the same reasoning applies to probation revocation proceedings and that a defendant on probation is entitled to a preliminary hearing and a final revocation hearing.

    In determining that States are not constitutionally require to provide probationers and parolees with court appointed counsel, the Supreme Court evaluated the purpose of parole/probation and the role the parole/probation officer has in supervising the probationer/parolee and the role the parole/probation officer has at revocation hearings. Because the nature of the revocation hearing is to protect the public and the role of the parole/probation officer is to evaluate whether the parolee/probationer should be recommitted to protect society and improve his chances of rehabilitation. The focus of the hearing is not to determine guilt. Further, the presence of attorneys at a quasi-judicial proceeding might have the effect of imposing greater formality into the proceeding, placing pressure on the decision-makers to reincarcerate instead of continuing nonpunitive rehabilitation.

    The Supreme Court concludes that there is no justification for creating a new, inflexible rule requiring appointed counsel at all revocation hearings. The better practice is to evaluate the need for court appointed counsel on a case by case basis based upon the following: Where probationer/parolee, after being informed of his right to request counsel, makes such a request based upon a timely and colorable claim (i) that he has not committed the alleged violation of the conditions upon which he is at liberty; or (2) that, even if the violation is a mater of public record or is uncontested, there are substantial reasons which justified or mitigated the violation and make revocation inappropriate, and that the reasons are complex or otherwise difficult to develop or present. In passing on a request for the appointment of counsel, the responsible agency should also consider, essentially in doubtful cases, whether the probationer appears to be capable of speaking effectively for himself. In every case in which request for counsel is refused, the grounds for such refusal should be stated succinctly in the record.


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