Alabama v. Shelton

535 U.S. 654 (2002)


LeReed Shelton (D) represented himself at a bench trial. D was convicted of third-degree assault, a class A misdemeanor carrying a maximum punishment of one year imprisonment and a $2000 fine. D invoked his right to a new trial before a jury in Circuit Court, Ala. Code §12-12-71 (1995), where he again appeared without a lawyer and was again convicted. The court repeatedly warned Shelton about the problems self-representation entailed but at no time offered him assistance of counsel at state expense. D was sentenced to serve 30 days in the county prison. The court suspended that sentence and placed D on two years' unsupervised probation, conditioned on his payment of court costs, a $500 fine, reparations of $25, and restitution in the amount of $516.69. D appealed his conviction and sentence on Sixth Amendment grounds, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. A suspended sentence, the court concluded, does not trigger the Sixth Amendment right to appointed counsel unless there is 'evidence in the record that the [defendant] has actually been deprived of liberty.' Because D remained on probation, the court held that he had not been denied any Sixth Amendment right at trial. The Supreme Court of Alabama reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals in relevant part. Referring to this Court's decisions in Argersinger and Scott, the Alabama Supreme Court reasoned that a defendant may not be 'sentenced to a term of imprisonment' absent provision of counsel. In the Alabama high court's view, a suspended sentence constitutes a 'term of imprisonment' within the meaning of Argersinger and Scott even though incarceration is not immediate or inevitable. And because the State is constitutionally barred from activating the conditional sentence, the Alabama court concluded, ' `the threat itself is hollow and should be considered a nullity.' The court affirmed D's conviction and the monetary portion of his punishment, but invalidated 'that aspect of his sentence imposing 30 days of suspended jail time.'