IOWA v. TOVAR, 541 U.S. 77

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No. 02-1541. Argued January 21, 2004--Decided March 8, 2004

At respondent Tovar's November 1996 arraignment for operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol (OWI), in response to the trial court's questions, Tovar affirmed that he wanted to represent himself and to plead guilty. Conducting the guilty plea colloquy required by the Iowa Rules of Criminal Procedure, the court explained that, if Tovar pleaded not guilty, he would be entitled to a speedy and public jury trial where he would have the right to counsel who could help him select a jury, question and cross-examine witnesses, present evidence, and make arguments on his behalf. By pleading guilty, the court cautioned, Tovar would give up his right to a trial and his rights at that trial to be represented by counsel, to remain silent, to the presumption of innocence, and to subpoena witnesses and compel their testimony. The court then informed Tovar of the maximum and minimum penalties for an OWI conviction, and explained that, before accepting a guilty plea, the court had to assure itself that Tovar was in fact guilty of the charged offense. To that end, the court informed Tovar of the two elements of the OWI charge: The defendant must have (1) operated a motor vehicle in Iowa (2) while intoxicated. Tovar confirmed, first, that on the date in question, he was operating a motor vehicle in Iowa and, second, that he did not dispute the result of the intoxilyzer test showing his blood alcohol level exceeded the legal limit nearly twice over. The court then accepted his guilty plea and, at a hearing the next month, imposed the minimum sentence of two days in jail and a fine. In 1998, Tovar was again charged with OWI, this time as a second offense, an aggravated misdemeanor under Iowa law. Represented by counsel in that proceeding, he pleaded guilty. In 2000, Tovar was charged with third-offense OWI, a class "D" felony under Iowa law. Again represented by counsel, Tovar pleaded not guilty to the felony charge. Counsel moved to preclude use of Tovar's first (1996) OWI conviction to enhance his 2000 offense from an aggravated misdemeanor to a third-offense felony. Tovar maintained that his 1996 waiver of counsel was invalid--not fully knowing, intelligent, and voluntary--because he was never made aware by the court of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation. The trial court denied the motion, found Tovar guilty, and sentenced him on the OWI third-offense charge. The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed, but the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed and remanded for entry of judgment without consideration of Tovar's first OWI conviction. Holding that the colloquy preceding acceptance of Tovar's 1996 guilty plea had been constitutionally inadequate, Iowa's high court ruled, as here at issue, that two warnings not given to Tovar are essential to the "knowing and intelligent" waiver of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel at the plea stage: The defendant must be advised specifically that waiving counsel's assistance in deciding whether to plead guilty (1) entails the risk that a viable defense will be overlooked and (2) deprives him of the opportunity to obtain an independent opinion on whether, under the facts and applicable law, it is wise to plead guilty.

Held: Neither warning ordered by the Iowa Supreme Court is mandated by the Sixth Amendment. The constitutional requirement is satisfied when the trial court informs the accused of the nature of the charges against him, of his right to be counseled regarding his plea, and of the range of allowable punishments attendant upon the entry of a guilty plea. Pp. 8-15.

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