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March 8, 2004

Miller Hails US Supreme Court Decision in Tovar Case

Statement of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 21, 2004:

I am very pleased with the Court's unanimous decision. This clears up a very important issue that could have affected many cases here in Iowa and all over the nation.

It is especially important in cases involving drunk driving, and possession of weapons by persons convicted of domestic abuse.

The Iowa Court's decision affected many criminal cases in Iowa, and repeat offenders have been receiving diminished sentences. Guilty pleas account for the vast majority of criminal convictions in Iowa and nationally. The U.S. Supreme Court decision will help establish a uniform standard nationally.

In this case, Felipe Tovar was a university student in 1996 when he pleaded guilty to drunk driving. He did not have an attorney. In 2001, he was charged with drunk driving in Iowa City as a third-time offender. Tovar argued that the earlier conviction could not be used against him because he had not intelligently waived his right to an attorney in 1996. The district court and the Iowa Court of Appeals said the earlier conviction could be counted as a prior offense for purposes of enhancing the 2001 charge. The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed and said Tovar could only be charged as a second-time drunk driver.

In the 1996 case, defendant Tovar was informed that he had a right to an attorney, the elements of the crime he was charged with, the maximum and minimum penalties he faced, that he had a right to go to trial, and that at trial an attorney could provide him with the procedural and substantive assistance he would need. Finally, the judge determined with Tovar whether what Tovar did fit the elements of the crime.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, held that this was not enough. In addition, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the defendant must be told by the judge that pleading guilty without counsel risked overlooking a possible defense, and could deprive the defendant of an independent opinion on the wisdom of pleading guilty.

We disagreed that a defendant who knows he was driving drunk, but wants to plead guilty and knows of the right to counsel must be cautioned that an attorney might help find an overlooked, technical defense.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a judge receiving a guilty plea is not required by the Constitution to go further and specifically advise a defendant that waiving the assistance of counsel in deciding whether to plead guilty involves a risk that a viable defense will be overlooked, or that it deprives the defendant of an opportunity to obtain an independent opinion on whether it is wise to plead guilty.

[END of statement of Attorney General Tom Miller.]

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