Argersinger v. Hamlin: Case Brief

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

''Argersinger v. Hamlin'' (1972) is a U.S. Supreme Court case about the right to counsel. In this lesson, we will learn about the right to an attorney, explore the background of the case and find out why the highest court in the country overturned the misdemeanor conviction of an indigent defendant.

Case Background: Right to Counsel

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone the right to have an attorney represent them at trial when they are accused of a crime. However, the Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) case helped to define when the right to an attorney, or counsel, should be provided in cases involving misdemeanors. Right to counsel means more than the right to have an attorney; it also means that, if you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, the court will appoint one at no cost to you. If necessary, the court will also appoint an attorney to help you appeal your conviction.

Argersinger v. Hamlin

In this case, Jon Argersinger, an indigent, was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor, or less serious offense. The charge carried a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine, or an alternate sentence of both penalties combined. After a bench trial, or trial by a judge rather than a jury, Jon Argersinger was sentenced to 90 days in prison.

Jon Argersinger could not afford to hire an attorney, and the Florida court that tried his case did not provide him with one. After he was convicted, Argersinger filed a habeas corpus, or petition, with the Florida Supreme Court, which rejected his appeal and upheld his conviction. According to the Court, as Argersinger's misdemeanor carried a maximum 6-month penalty, he was not entitled to a jury trial, and therefore not entitled to the right to counsel.

In reaching its decision, the Florida Supreme Court felt that the federal right to counsel provided by the Sixth Amendment only applied to convictions requiring jail sentences of more than sixth months. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had previously ruled on the right to counsel in the Gideon v. Wainwright case in 1963, the Florida Supreme Court, equated the right to counsel with the right to a jury trial. Jon Argersinger's case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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