Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972)

An indigent criminal defendant cannot be subjected to actual imprisonment unless provided with counsel. Specifically, the right to counsel applies if the defendant could actually be imprisoned, even for so-called petty offenses where no jury trial is required or the sentence would be less than six months.

Citation: 407 U.S. 25 (1972)
Date decided: Jun 12, 1972
Longer case name: Argersinger v. Hamlin, Sheriff
Law type: Criminal
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Florida
Topic(s):Right to counsel: Criminal
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Attorneys:Bruce S. Rogow (Greater Miami Legal Services) argued the cause for petitioner on the reargument and J. Michael Shea argued the cause pro hac vice on the original argument. With them on the brief was P. A. Hubbart.
Others involved:Solicitor General Griswold argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae on the reargument urging reversal. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Petersen, Deputy Solicitor General Greenawalt, Harry R. Sachse, Beatrice Rosenberg, and Sidney M. Glazer. Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by William E. Hellerstein for the Legal Aid Society of New York, and by Marshall J. Hartman for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
More info: Findlaw

Case Importance

From ( “The Florida court had based its decision on a U.S. Supreme Court case, Duncan v. Louisiana (1968), in which the Court had ruled that the right to a court-appointed attorney only extended to indigent defendants charged with non-petty offenses punishable by more than 6 months imprisonment. The issue in Duncan had been the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, so now the Court turned to another precedent, Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), to address the issue of incarceration of criminal defendants without representation. The holding there–that indigent defendants in felony cases have a right to appointed counsel–was now extended to include misdemeanor defendants facing prison sentences. As Justice Douglas wrote for the Court: ‘We hold, therefore, that absent a knowing and intelligent waiver, no person may be imprisoned for any offense, whether classified as petty, misdemeanor, or felony, unless he was represented by counsel at his trial.'”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)



The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to the assistance of counsel, which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth, Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, is not governed by the classification of the offense or by whether or not a jury trial is required. No accused may be deprived of his liberty as the result of any criminal prosecution, whether felony or misdemeanor, in which he was denied the assistance of counsel. In this case, the Supreme Court of Florida erred in holding that petitioner, an indigent who was tried for an offense punishable by imprisonment up to six months, a $1,000 fine, or both, and given a 90-day jail sentence, had no right to court-appointed counsel, on the ground that the right extends only to trials “for non-petty offenses punishable by more than six months imprisonment.” Pp. 27-40.

236 So.2d 442, reversed.

From the opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, an indigent, was charged in Florida with carrying a concealed weapon, an offense punishable by imprisonment up to six months, a $1,000 fine, or both. The trial was to a judge, and petitioner was unrepresented by counsel. He was sentenced to serve 90 days in jail, and brought this habeas corpus action in the Florida Supreme Court, alleging that, being deprived of his right to counsel, he was unable as an indigent layman properly to raise and present to the trial court good and sufficient defenses to the charge for which he stands convicted. The Florida [407 U.S. 25, 27] Supreme Court by a four-to-three decision, in ruling on the right to counsel, followed the line we marked out in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 159 , as respects the right to trial by jury and held that the right to court-appointed counsel extends only to trials “for non-petty offenses punishable by more than six months imprisonment.” 236 So.2d 442, 443. 1

The case is here on a petition for certiorari, which we granted. 401 U.S. 908 . We reverse.

The Sixth Amendment, which in enumerated situations has been made applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth Amendment (see Duncan v. Louisiana, supra; Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14 ; Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213 ; Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400 ; Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 ; and In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257 ), provides specified standards for “all criminal prosecutions.” [407 U.S. 25, 28]

One is the requirement of a “public trial.” In re Oliver, supra, held that the right to a “public trial” was applicable to a state proceeding even though only a 60-day sentence was involved. 333 U.S., at 272 .

Another guarantee is the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation. Still another, the right of confrontation. Pointer v. Texas, supra. And another, compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in one’s favor. Washington v. Texas, supra. We have never limited these rights to felonies or to lesser but serious offenses.

In Washington v. Texas, supra, we said, “We have held that due process requires that the accused have the assistance of counsel for his defense, that he be confronted with the witnesses against him, and that he have the right to a speedy and public trial.” 388 U.S., at 18 . Respecting the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right to compulsory process for obtaining witnesses, it was recently stated, “It is simply not arguable, nor has any court ever held, that the trial of a petty offense may be held in secret, or without notice to the accused of the charges, or that in such cases the defendant has no right to confront his accusers or to compel the attendance of witnesses in his own behalf.” Junker, The Right to Counsel in Misdemeanor Cases, 43 Wash. L. Rev. 685, 705 (1968).

District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617 , illustrates the point. There, the offense was engaging without a license in the business of dealing in second-hand property, an offense punishable by a fine of $300 or imprisonment for not more than 90 days. The Court held that the offense was a “petty” one and could be tried without a jury. But the conviction was reversed [407 U.S. 25, 29] and a new trial ordered, because the trial court had prejudicially restricted the right of cross-examination, a right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.


While there is historical support for limiting the “deep commitment” to trial by jury to “serious criminal cases,” 2 there is no such support for a similar limitation on the right to assistance of counsel:

“Originally, in England, a person charged with treason or felony was denied the aid of counsel, except in respect of legal questions which the accused himself might suggest. At the same time parties in civil cases and persons accused of misdemeanors were entitled to the full assistance of counsel. . . .

. . . . .

“[It] appears that in at least twelve of the thirteen colonies the rule of the English common law, in the respect now under consideration, had been definitely rejected and the right to counsel fully recognized in all criminal prosecutions, save that in one or two instances the right was limited to capital offenses or to the more serious crimes . . . .” Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 60 , 64-65.

The Sixth Amendment thus extended the right to counsel beyond its common-law dimensions. But there is nothing in the language of the Amendment, its history, or in the decisions of this Court, to indicate that it was intended to embody a retraction of the right in petty offenses wherein the common law previously did require that counsel be provided. See James v. Headley, 410 F.2d 325, 331-332, n. 9.

We reject, therefore, the premise that since prosecutions for crimes punishable by imprisonment for less than [407 U.S. 25, 31] six months may be tried without a jury, they may also be tried without a lawyer.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:42
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