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July 6, 2011

Interesting split Eighth Circuit ruling on uncounseled prior convictions used to enhance sentence

The Eighth Circuit has a very interesting ruling today in US v. Cavanaugh, No. 10-1154 (8th Cir. July 6, 2011) (available here), concerning both the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and sentencing enhancements based on priro convictions. Here is the start of the majority opinion (Per Judge Melloy):

Roman Cavanaugh, Jr., was charged for the offense of domestic assault by a habitual offender, 18 U.S.C. § 117.  As elements of the offense, the government must prove Cavanaugh received "a final conviction on at least 2 separate prior occasions in Federal, State, or Indian tribal court proceedings" for certain abuse offenses.  Id. § 117(a).  Below, the district court dismissed the indictment because, although Cavanaugh had received prior misdemeanor abuse convictions in tribal court on three separate occasions, Cavanaugh had not received the benefit of appointed counsel in the proceedings that resulted in the convictions.

The issues presented in this appeal are whether the Fifth or Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution preclude the use of these prior tribal-court misdemeanor convictions as predicate convictions to establish the habitual-offender elements of § 117. Cavanaugh's prior convictions resulted in actual incarceration that, pursuant to Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), and Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367 (1979), would have been unconstitutional in violation of the Sixth Amendment right to appointed counsel if the convictions had originated in a state or federal court.  The district court, recognizing that the Sixth Amendment imposes no duty on Indian tribes to provide counsel for indigent defendants, noted that the prior convictions were valid at their inception and that the prior terms of incarceration were not in violation of the United States Constitution, tribal law, or the Indian Civil Rights Act, 25 U.S.C. § 1302.  The court, nevertheless, held that the uncounseled convictions were infirm for the purpose of proving the habitual-offender, predicate-conviction elements of the § 117 offense in these subsequent federal court proceedings.

The government appeals, and we reverse.  In doing so, we note an apparent inconsistency in several cases dealing with the use of arguably infirm prior judgments to establish guilt, trigger a sentencing enhancement, or determine a sentence for a subsequent offense. Ultimately, however, we are persuaded in this case that the predicate convictions, valid at their inception, and not alleged to be otherwise unreliable, may be used to prove the elements of § 117.

And here is the start of Judge Bye's dissent:

I agree with my panel colleagues' observation as to the Supreme Court's jurisprudence failing to provide clear direction in determining whether the Sixth Amendment precludes a federal court from using an uncounseled tribal court misdemeanor conviction to prove the elements of a subsequent federal offense.  The majority's opinion exhaustively covers the subject matter and aptly describes the tension in the decisions which we must consider.  I can also agree the lack of clarity means reasonable decision-makers are likely to differ on the conclusions they reach with respect to allowing or prohibiting such use of an uncounseled tribal court conviction.  I disagree with the conclusion reached by the majority, however, and therefore respectfully dissent.

July 6, 2011 at 11:11 AM | Permalink


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