PALMER V. ASCHE, 342 U. S. 134 (1951)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Palmer v. Asche, 342 U.S. 134 (1951)

Palmer v. Asche

No. 38

Argued November 5, 1951

Decided December 11, 1951

342 U.S. 134


1. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to afford a defendant assistance of counsel in a noncapital criminal case when there are special circumstances showing that, without a lawyer, the defendant could not have an adequate and fair defense. P. 342 U. S. 134.

2. Without counsel and without being offered counsel or advised of his right to counsel, petitioner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of five to fifteen years each on charges of armed robbery and attempted armed robbery. Years later, in a habeas corpus proceeding in a Pennsylvania court, he alleged that, both upon his arrest and at his arraignment, he was told that he was charged with "breaking and entering," that he was then a young, irresponsible boy who had spent several years in a mental institution, and that he did not know that he was charged with armed robbery until after he reached prison. The record was not sufficient to refute these allegations, but the state court dismissed his petition without affording him an opportunity to prove them.

Held: judgment reversed, and cause remanded for further proceedings. Pp. 342 U. S. 135-138.

(a) If petitioner's allegations are proven, they would present compelling reasons why he desperately needed legal counsel and services. Pp. 342 U. S. 136-137.

(b) In a habeas corpus proceeding challenging the constitutionality of a conviction for crime, the trial record may relevantly be considered, but the record in this case does not even inferentially deny petitioner's charge that the officers deceived him, nor show an understanding plea of guilty. Pp. 342 U. S. 137-138.

Reversed and remanded.

A Pennsylvania trial court dismissed petitioner's habeas corpus proceeding. The Superior Court affirmed. 167 Pa.Super. 88, 74 A.2d 725. The State Supreme Court refused to allow an appeal. This Court granted certiorari. 341 U.S. 919. Reversed and remanded, p. 342 U. S. 138.

Page 342 U. S. 135

Opinion of the Court by MR. JUSTICE BLACK, announced by MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER.

This Court has repeatedly held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to afford defendants assistance of counsel in noncapital criminal cases when there are special circumstances showing that, without a lawyer, a defendant could not have an adequate and a fair defense. * Petitioner, a prisoner in a Pennsylvania penitentiary, is serving the second of two five-to-fifteen-year sentences simultaneously imposed after pleas of guilty to state offenses. He sought release in these habeas corpus proceedings filed in a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas. His petition alleged that his pleas of guilty were entered without benefit of counsel, and that other special circumstances existed which deprived him of opportunity and capacity fairly to defend himself. Answers of the warden and district attorney admitted that petitioner had not been represented by counsel, but asserted that the trial record sufficiently refuted petitioner's allegations. On consideration of the petition and answers, the court held that petitioner's allegations, in light of the record, failed to show probable cause for his discharge. The case was then dismissed, thereby depriving petitioner of any opportunity to offer

Page 342 U. S. 136

evidence to prove his allegations. The Superior Court affirmed, 167 Pa.Super. 88, 74 A.2d 725, and the State Supreme Court refused to allow an appeal. The right to counsel being an important constitutional safeguard, we granted petitioner's motion to proceed in forma pauperis and his petition for certiorari. 341 U.S. 919.

We must look to the petition and answers to determine whether the particular circumstances alleged are sufficient to entitle petitioner to a judicial hearing. In summary, these allegations are: when petitioner was arrested December 20, 1930, the officers told him that he was charged with "breaking and entering the Leaders Dry Goods Store." Later, before a magistrate, he was again told that the charge was "breaking and entering." Petitioner never saw the indictments against him, nor were they read to him. He never knew he had been charged with robbery, and never intended to plead guilty to such a crime. Taken to the courtroom,

"the District Attorney informed the Court, that 'the defendant wishes to plead guilty' and, in the matter of a minute, more or less, the foregoing sentence was entered after he answered 'Yes' to the Court's query, 'Do you plead guilty to this charge?' Petitioner 'was not represented by counsel, nor offered counsel, or advised of his right to have counsel.' . . ."

After arrival at the penitentiary, petitioner first learned, according to his petition, that he had been sentenced for robbery, and not for the lesser charge of "breaking and entering." The petition also alleges that petitioner, when arrested, was

"a young irresponsible boy, having spent several years in Polk (because he was mentally abnormal), as well as several years in Morganza."

This allegation of mental abnormality is supported by the penitentiary warden's answer showing that petitioner had been confined in Polk (a state institution) from August, 1918, to September, 1920, because he was an "imbecile." The warden's answer also shows that petitioner was born

Page 342 U. S. 137

in 1909; was a state orphanage inmate for a year beginning in 1916, and was in reformatories for larceny or "breaking and entering" for eight of the ten years between the time of his release from the mental institution and the time of the offense for which he is now in prison.

All of the foregoing allegations, if proven, would present compelling reasons why petitioner desperately needed legal counsel and services. Incarceration as a boy for imbecility, followed by repeated activities wholly incompatible with normal standards of conduct, indicates no qualities of mind or character calculated to enable petitioner to protect himself in the give-and-take of a courtroom trial. Moreover, if there can be proof of what he charges, he is the victim of inadvertent or intentional deception by officers who, so he alleges, persuaded him to plead guilty to armed robbery by telling him he was only charged with breaking and entering, an offense for which the maximum imprisonment is only ten years, as compared to twenty years for armed robbery. 18 Purdon's Pa.Stat.Ann. (1930) §§ 2892, 3041. In this aspect of the case, the allegations are strikingly like those that we held entitled the petitioner to a hearing in Smith v. O'Grady, 312 U. S. 329.

It is strongly urged here, however, that petitioner's allegations are satisfactorily refuted by the trial record, and that the Court should not now look behind that record, particularly in view of the long time that has elapsed since petitioner pleaded guilty. Of course, the trial record may relevantly be considered in the habeas corpus proceeding. In some respects, petitioner's allegations are refuted by the record. But that record does not even inferentially deny petitioner's charge that the officers deceived him, nor does the record show an understanding plea of guilty from this petitioner, unless by a resort to speculation and surmise. The right to counsel is too valuable in our system to dilute it by such untrustworthy

Page 342 U. S. 138

reasoning. Cf. Hawk v. Olson, 326 U. S. 271, 326 U. S. 278. The judgment dismissing the petition is reversed, and the cause is remanded to the State Supreme Court for further action not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

* Uveges v. Pennsylvania, 335 U. S. 437; Bute v. Illinois, 333 U. S. 640, 333 U. S. 677, and cases cited. It was pointed out in the Uveges opinion that a minority of the Court believed the Fourteenth and Sixth Amendments require both state and federal courts to afford defendants in all criminal prosecutions the assistance of counsel for their defense.

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