Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Procedural Law

Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) is a U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires the appointment of counsel before a prison sentence can be levied against a criminal defendant.    

CitationArgersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972)

Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the constitutional right to counsel for defendants facing imprisonment for any criminal offense. This decision significantly expanded the protections of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees the right to counsel in criminal cases.

Before the Argersinger decision, the Supreme Court had held in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) that the right to counsel was a fundamental constitutional right and that states were required to provide counsel to indigent defendants in all felony cases. However, the Court had not yet addressed whether the right to counsel applied in misdemeanor cases.

In Argersinger, the Court considered the case of a defendant who had been sentenced to 90 days in jail for a misdemeanor offense of carrying a concealed weapon. The defendant had been represented by a public defender, but he argued that he should not have been sentenced to jail time without the assistance of a lawyer.

The Court agreed with the defendant, holding that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applied not only to felony cases but also to any case in which a defendant faced imprisonment, regardless of the seriousness of the offense. The Court reasoned that the possibility of imprisonment, no matter how short, carried with it significant consequences and required the assistance of counsel to protect the defendant’s rights.

The Court acknowledged that providing counsel in all misdemeanor cases would place a significant burden on state and local governments. However, the Court noted that there were alternatives, such as providing defendants with self-help materials or appointing counsel on a limited basis, that could help to address this burden.

The Argersinger decision had far-reaching implications for the criminal justice system in the United States. It ensured that defendants facing even minor criminal charges would have the right to counsel and that the government would be required to provide counsel to indigent defendants in these cases. This decision helped to ensure that defendants received fair trials and that their rights were protected, regardless of the seriousness of the offense.

In the decades since the Argersinger decision, courts have continued to refine and clarify the right to counsel in criminal cases. In 1984, the Supreme Court held in Strickland v. Washington that defendants have a right to effective assistance of counsel, meaning that their counsel must meet certain minimum standards of competence. This decision helped to ensure that defendants not only had the right to counsel but also received effective representation.

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Last Modified: 04/15/2023


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