May 8th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in State v. Youngblood (No. 96,850). In a unanimous decision, written by Justice Johnson, the Court vacated the conviction of Galen Youngblood for felony possession of marijuana. The case implicates the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the use of convictions obtained without counsel for subsequent sentencing enhancements.
Galen Youngblood was detained on a driving on a suspended license charge in 2004. He was caught disposing of a marijuana pipe and was therefore charged with possession of marijuana. A first offense is a misdemeanor but a second offense can be charged as a felony. Since Youngblood had a prior misdemeanor conviction from Newton Municipal Court for the same offense, he was charged with a felony.
The Sixth Amendment the Right to Counsel attaches to misdemeanors that result in a prison sentence. This offense was one such misdemeanor, although in Youngblood’s case he had received a suspended sentence with probation. Youngblood filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds that his prior conviction had occurred without counsel. The waiver of counsel document from his trial was blank and although the State could show that he had subsequently signed a waiver (after the fact) there was not evidence that he had knowingly waived his right. The District Court also heard evidence from the original judge who could not independently verify that he had spoken with Youngblood about his waiving his right, but who said that he always spoke to defendants about this.
The District Court ruled against Youngblood and held that since he had not been jailed on prior occasion the Sixth Amendment did not apply. Youngblood was convicted and sentenced (the Court does not specify the length of his sentence). Youngblood appealed. The Court of Appeals upheld his conviction, ruling that although he had been denied his Right to Counsel in the prior conviction (since the onus is upon the State to prove that he had knowingly waived it) it was still valid for its use here.
The heart of the case comes down to the way various Federal Caselaw has been applied in Kansas. The United States Supreme Court held in a case in the 1970s that the test as to whether the Sixth Amendement applied to a misdemeanor was imprisonment. In 1994 the U.S. Supreme Court held that a prior uncounselled misdemeanor conviction could be used to enhance a subsequent sentence if the State could show that the defendant had waived his right to counsel. Therefore in State v. Delacruz (1995) the Kansas Supreme Court held that the same rule applied in Kansas. Subsequently, in Alabama v. Shelton (2002) the U.S. Supreme Court held that even a suspended sentence that does not result in jail time is covered by this Sixth Amendment rule.
The Court of Appeals had held that Delacruz was compatible with Shelton and had therefore held that the prior conviction could be used to enhance the new charge. The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, ruling that this case is different to Delacruz in any case because the Delacruz rule allows a validly obtained uncounselled conviction to be used. Since Youngblood had received a suspended sentence, under Shelton, the Sixth Amendment did apply and therefore his original conviction was not constitutionally valid. Therefore it could not be used to enhance his present charge to a felony.