Argersinger V. Hamlin

407 U.S. 25 (1972)

Mr. Argersinger was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor that carried up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. He went to trial before a judge, without a jury, and was found guilty. Mr. Argersinger was not represented by counsel. He was sentenced to serve 90 days in jail. Following his conviction, Mr. Argersinger brought a habeas corpus action, claiming that he was deprived of his right to counsel.

Constitutional Issue
The Court was asked to determine whether due process requires that a person accused of a crime, even a misdemeanor, is entitled to the assistance of counsel for his defense. Extending the rationale of both Powell and Gideon, the Court noted that there are certain fundamental rights applicable to all such criminal prosecutions, even those, . . . where the penalty is 60 days imprisonment. Looking beyond high-stakes prosecutions, the Court commented that the trial of vagrancy cases is illustrative. While only brief sentences of imprisonment may be imposed, the cases often bristle with thorny constitutional questions.

In reversing the conviction, the Court held that the right to counsel is fundamental and required for all criminal prosecutions where imprisonment is a possible punishment:

"We hold that no person may be deprived of his liberty who has been denied the assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. This holding is applicable to all criminal prosecutions, including prosecutions for violations of municipal ordinances. The denial of the assistance of counsel will preclude the imposition of a jail sentence."

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