407 U.S. 25 (1972), argued 6 Dec. 1971, reargued 28 Feb. 1972, decided 12 June 1972 by vote of 9 to 0; Douglas for the Court; Brennan, Stewart, Burger, Powell, and Rehnquist concurring.
Argersinger was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, an offense punishable by imprisonment up to six months, a thousand-dollar fine, or both. Indigent, he was tried without counsel by a judge, found guilty, and sentenced to ninety days in jail. Argersinger then filed a habeas corpus action in the Florida Supreme Court alleging that he was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The Florida court rejected his claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. It extended Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), holding that “absent a knowing and intelligent waiver, no person may be imprisoned for any offense, whether classified as petty, misdemeanor, or felony, unless he was represented by [appointed or retained] counsel at his trial” (p. 37). In concurrence, Justice Lewis F. Powell expressed concern that the majority's decision would substantially burden the already congested criminal justice system and would allow those fined rather than imprisoned to present equal protection challenges.
Seven years later in Scott v. Illinois (1979), the Court clarified its Argersinger decision, holding that defendants charged with offenses where imprisonment is authorized but not actually imposed do not have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The Court also noted that despite concerns when Argersinger was decided, the decision had proved “reasonably workable” (p. 373).
Susan E. Lawrence