Uveges v. Pennsylvania/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

335 U.S. 437

Uveges  v.  Pennsylvania

 Argued: Nov. 16, 17, 1948. --- Decided: Dec 13, 1948

Petitioner is held by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the Western State Penitentiary on sentences totalling a minimum of twenty and a maximum of forty years pronounced pursuant to his pleas of guilty to four indictments charging burglary. We granted certiorari, 334 U.S. 836, 68 S.Ct. 1489, to review a denial by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania of his petition to appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court which affirmed a dismissal of a petition for habeas corpus in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. Petitioner claimed in the state courts, and now claims here, that he was denied counsel in the proceedings leading to his convictions in violation of his right to counsel under the due process of l w clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

From the pleadings and decisions of the Pennsylvania courts, certified to us as the record in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and without reliance upon any additional allegations in the petition for certiorari, the facts and allegations as to denial of constitutional rights may be summarized as follows: On October 27, 1938, petitioner Uveges, a youth seventeen years of age, was faced with four district attorney's indictments charging four separate burglaries. Upon his plea of guilty to these indictments, Uveges was sentenced in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County to from five to ten years on each indictment, the sentences to run consecutively. In his petition to the same court for a writ of habeas corpus in 1946, petitioner alleged that he was not informed of his right to counsel nor was counsel offered him at any time during the period between arrest and conviction. He also alleged that 'frightened by threats of dire consequences if he dared to stand trial, relator pleaded guilty under the direction of an assistant district attorney, with the understanding that a sentence to Huntington Reformatory would be imposed.' We disregard this last allegation because it was not presented to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the petition for allowance of appeal. A rule to show cause why the writ should not issue was granted. The answer denied that petitioner was entitled to counsel but did not deny the allegation of threats by the assistant district attorney. The Court of Common Pleas, without a hearing, entered an order dismissing the petition and denying the writ. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed, 161 Pa.Super. 58, 53 A.2d 894, noting that Uveges had been arrested once before for burglary and confined in a reformatory for ten months. The state Supreme Court, on September 29, 1947, denied a petition for allowance of appeal which repeated the allegations of youth and denial of the right to counsel. 53 A.2d 894. We think this record adequately raised the federal constitutional question as to denial of counsel. Pennsylvania makes no contrary contention. [1] We granted the motion to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari, 334 U.S. 836, 68 S.Ct. 1489 in order to examine the important constitutional question presented by petitioner's claim of right to counsel. [2]

Since our understanding is that in Pennsylvania habeas corpus is available to an accused whose constitutional right to counsel has been denied, [3] a d since respondent does not suggest that the state bars a remedy by habeas corpus in the circumstances of this case because no appeal was taken from the original conviction, we proceed to the merits of this controversy.

Some members of the Court think that where serious offenses are charged, failure of a court to offer counsel in state criminal trials deprives an accused of rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. They are convinced that the services of counsel to protect the accused are guaranted by the Constitution in every such instance. See Bute v. People of Illinois, 333 U.S. 640, dissent, 677-679, 68 S.Ct. 763, 782, 783. Only when the accused refuses counsel with an understanding of his rights can the court dispense with counsel. [4] Others of us think that when a crime subject to capital punishment is not involved, each case depends on its own facts. See Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 462, 62 S.Ct. 1252, 1256, 86 L.Ed. 1595. Where the gravity of the crime and other factors-such as the age and education of the defendant, [5] the conduct of the court or the prosecuting officials, [6] and the complicated nature of the offense charged and the possible defenses thereto [7]-render criminal proceedings without counsel so apt to result in injustice as to be fundamentally unfair, the latter group held that the accused must have legal assistance under the Amendment whether he pleads guilty or elects to stand trial, whether he requests counsel or not. Only a waiver of counsel, understandingly made, justifies trial without counsel.

The philosophy behind both of these views is that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Fifth Amendment requires counsel for all persons charged with serious crimes, when necessary for their adequate defense, in order that such persons may be advised how to conduct their trial. The application of the rule varies as indicated in the preceding paragraph.

Under either view of the requirements of due process, the facts in this case required the presence of counsel at petitioner's trial. He should not have been permitted to plead guilty without an offer of the advice of counsel in his situation. If the circumstances alleged in his petition are true, the accused was entitled to an adviser to help him handle his problems. Petitioner was young and inexperienced in the intricacies of criminal procedure when he pleaded guilty to crimes which carried a maximum sentence of eighty years. [8] There is an undenied allegation that he was never advised of his right to counsel. The record shows no attempt on the part of the court to make him understand the consequences of his plea. Whatever our decision might have been if the trial court had informed him of his rights and conscientiously had undertaken to perform the functions ordinarily entrusted to counsel, we conclude that the opportunity to have counsel in this case was a necessary element of a fair hearing.


Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, with whom Mr. Justice JACKSON and Mr. Justice BURTON concur, dissenting.


  1. Same.1 Failure to assign
  2. Same.2 Here denied2 Signature not
  3. Apparently3 No such3 Same as No.
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  5. Held
  6. Refusal of
  7. Witnesses
  8. Purdon's Pa.Stat.Ann., tit. 18, § 4901.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).