Court Voids Warning To Defendants Without Lawyers


States may not require judges to warn criminal defendants that pleading guilty without consulting a lawyer might be unwise, the U.S. Supreme Court says. The high court ruled unanimously yesterday that the Iowa Supreme Court had gone too far with such a standard, which the justices said wasn’t required by the federal Constitution,, reports the Des Moines Register.

The ruling came the case of Felipe Tovar, who was found guilty of third-offense drunken driving, which carries an enhanced penalty of five years in prison and a heavy fine. Tovar argued that his first drunken-driving conviction, which occurred while he was a college student, should not have been considered. He claimed that his guilty plea without a lawyer was uninformed and that he was unaware of the consequences.

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed his conviction last year, saying that the judge in the first case should have warned Tovar that without a lawyer, he risked overlooking a “viable defense” and was depriving himself of an “independent opinion” on whether he was making a wise choice. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, joined by the Bush administration and 33 other attorneys general, asked the high court to void the ruling.

“This clears up a very important issue that could have affected many cases here in Iowa and all over the nation,” Miller said. “It’s especially important in cases involving drunk driving, and possession of weapons by persons convicted of domestic abuse.”

In yesterday’s ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the judge’s warning under the Iowa standard “might cause a defendant to wonder whether the court thinks he has a good defense, when in reality he does not.”


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