Argersinger v. Hamlin

Jon Richard Argersinger was charged in a Florida state court with carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor offense punishable by imprisonment up to 6 months and a $1,000 fine.  He could not afford his own attorney, but was not provided one by the trial court. Instead, he had to represent himself at the bench trial where he was convicted and then sentenced to 90 days in jail.  His case went to the Florida Supreme Court, where he said he had been deprived of his right to counsel and was not able to properly represent himself without a lawyer.

The Florida Supreme Court affirmed Mr. Argersinger’s conviction and sentence, ruling that the federal constitutional right to counsel extended only to people charged with offenses punishable by more than 6 months in jail.  Their interpretation of Gideon was that the right to counsel paralleled the right to a jury trial.  In their view, because Argersinger could only be sentenced to a maximum of 6 months in jail, he did not have a right to trial by jury and therefore did not have a right to counsel at public expense.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually reversed the Florida Supreme Court in the landmark case of Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972), stating: “We reject … the premise that, since prosecutions for crimes punishable by imprisonment for less than six months may be tried without a jury, they may also be tried without a lawyer.”  The Court held that the Sixth Amendment requires an attorney be provided to represent every indigent defendant who is facing loss of liberty for any amount of time and on any charge.

The Argersinger Court observed: 

“The requirement of counsel may well be necessary for a fair trial even in a petty offense prosecution.  We are by no means convinced that legal and constitutional questions involved in a case that actually leads to imprisonment even for a brief period are any less complex than when a person can be sent off for six months or more.  . . .  While only brief sentences of imprisonment may be imposed, the cases often bristle with thorny constitutional questions….

“Beyond the problem of trials and appeals is that of the guilty plea, a problem which looms large in misdemeanor, as well as in felony, cases.  Counsel is needed so that the accused may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution.

“In addition, the volume of misdemeanor cases, far greater in number than felony prosecutions, may create an obsession for speedy dispositions, regardless of the fairness of the result.  . . .  There is evidence of the prejudice which results to misdemeanor defendants from this ‘assembly line justice.’”

Argersinger completely transformed the world of public defense.  Gideon had already established a right to counsel in felony cases, but in 1965 the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice estimated that nationwide only 314,000 defendants were charged with felonies in state courts in a given year (an average of 6,280 per state).  To put that into perspective,a state could handle such a caseload of 6,280 felonies with only 42 full-time attorneys and be in full compliance with national caseload standards.  It is little wonder that only five states had formed statewide public defender agencies prior to 1972: Rhode Island (1942), Delaware (1952), New Jersey (1967), Colorado (1969), and Maryland (1971). But the number of misdemeanor cases dwarfed felonies by a 14 to 1 margin (the President’s Commission estimated between four and five million misdemeanor cases occurred annually across the nation, excluding traffic offenses).  The massive volume of misdemeanor cases wending their way through state trial courts each year – cases that Argersinger held would now require appointed counsel – changed everything.


Publication Date: 2010