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In Letter to Utah Supreme Court, ACLU of Utah Outlines Effects of Alabama v. Shelton

01 July 2002 Published in Legal Advocacy

In a letter to the Utah Supreme Court, the ACLU of Utah outlines the effects of Alabama v. Shelton.

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The ACLU of Utah Outlines the Effects of Alabama v. Shelton

July 1, 2002

Honorable Chief Justice Durham
Scott M. Matheson Courthouse
450 S State Street
P.O. Box 140241
SLC, UT 84114

Re: Alabama v. Shelton

Dear Chief Judge Durham:

We write to bring to your attention the United States Supreme Court decision in Alabama v. Shelton, 122 U.S. 1764 (May 20, 2002) (LEXIS, Genfed library). That decision holds that a court cannot constitutionally impose a suspended jail sentence or any other type of sentence containing a threat of future incarceration upon a misdemeanor defendant who was not afforded the right to counsel. Since we believe many Utah misdemeanor defendants are currently serving jail sentences that have become null and void as a result of Shelton, we are writing you, along with the Chief Judge of every other district court in Utah, to request that you immediately identify and order the release of all such persons whom the courts in your judicial circuit have committed to jail. We are also writing to emphasize that Shelton prohibits imposition of any incarceration on any person whose probation is revoked if that person was not represented by counsel at trial or plea. We request that you disseminate this information to the judges in your circuit.

The Supreme Court’s holding in Shelton is unambiguous: "We hold that a suspended sentence that may ‘end up in the actual deprivation of a person’s liberty’ may not be imposed unless the defendant was accorded ‘the guiding hand of counsel’ in the prosecution for the crime charged." Shelton, id. at 2 (quoting Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 40 (1972)). As the Court later elaborated: "Deprived of counsel when tried, convicted and sentenced, and unable to challenge the original judgment at a subsequent probation revocation hearing, a defendant in Shelton’s circumstances faces incarceration on a conviction that has never been subjected to `the crucible of meaningful adversarial testing.” The Sixth Amendment does not countenance this result." Shelton, id. at 25 (quoting United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 656 (1984)).

The Shelton decision unquestionably invalidates a practice that was common in Alabama and several other states, including Utah. See Layton City v. Longcrier, 943 P.2d 655, 658 (Utah Ct.App.), cert. denied, 953 P.2d 449 (Utah 1997), and cert. denied, 523 U.S. 1125, 118 S. Ct 1811, 140 L.Ed.2d 949 (1998); West Valley City v. Sellers, 1999 UT App 254, 254 (Utah Ct.App. 1999); West Valley City v. McDonald, 948 P.2d 371, 374 (Utah Ct.App. 1997).

It is clear from Shelton, therefore, that any person who is currently in jail on the basis of a probation violation stemming from an uncounseled misdemeanor conviction without a valid waiver of counsel is being held unconstitutionally because the potentially incarcerative portion of his or her misdemeanor sentence is null and void. See Shelton, id. at 12 (affirming Alabama Supreme Court’s conclusion that "because the State in constitutionally barred from activating the conditional sentence, `the threat itself is hollow and should be considered a nullity.”"). The continued unjustified incarceration of such persons after Shelton could well result in civil liability and injunctive relief against the governmental authorities responsible for continuing the incarceration after the United States Supreme Court held it to be unconstitutional.

Therefore, we respectfully request that you identify and immediately order the release of any person you have committed to jail who satisfies all of the following criteria: (1) he or she was convicted of a misdemeanor, whether by plea or by trial; (2) he or she was not represented by counsel; (3) he or she did not make a knowing, voluntary, and understanding waiver of the right to counsel on the record, (1) State v. Drobel, 815 P.2d 724 (Ut. App.Ct. 1991); and (4) he or she is now in jail as a result of, inter alia, violation of probation or any other condition of his or her sentence (e.g., payment of a fine, performing community service, etc.). Shelton makes clear that any portion of such a person’s sentence that could result in future imprisonment is invalid per se and must be vacated. Therefore, we further request that in the future the courts in your circuit refrain from revoking and sending to prison persons who did not have the benefit of counsel at their trial or arraignment and plea.

We are confident that you will quickly implement, within a few days, the Shelton decision and immediately release all those jail inmates whose sentences have become null and void. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about this matter or if we may be of any assistance to you.

Sincerely,

Janelle Eurick
Staff Attorney
ACLU of Utah

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1. The right to defend oneself in a criminal prosecution has been established under the sixth amendment to the federal constitution. Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 95 S.Ct. 2525, 45 L.Ed.2d 562 (1975). This right is also specifically provided in Article I, section 12 of the Utah Constitution. State v. Hamilton, 732 P.2d 505, 507 (Utah 1986) (per curiam); State v. Penderville, 2 Utah 2d 281, 272 P.2d 195, 199 (1954). See also Utah R.Crim.P. 8. Because the exercise of this right necessarily constitutes a waiver of the important right to professional counsel, trial courts have an affirmative duty to determine that a defendant who chooses self-representation does so knowingly and intelligently. Faretta, 422 U.S. at 835, 95 S.Ct. at 2541; State v. Lafferty, 749 P.2d 1239, 1248 (Utah 1988), aff”d, 776 P.2d 631 (Utah 1989); State v. Frampton, 737 P.2d 183, 187 (Utah 1987). This determination turns "upon the particular facts and circumstances surrounding that case, including the background, experience, and conduct of the accused." Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 464, 58 S.Ct. 1019, 1023, 82 L.Ed. 1461 (1938).