United States v. Bryant

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Law
  • Date Filed: 09-30-2014
  • Case #: 12-3017
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Paez for the Court; Circuit Judges Pregerson and Watford
  • Full Text Opinion

In tribal courts, uncounseled, past convictions resulting in imprisonment may not be used against the defendant in subsequent proceedings; however, past convictions may be used where the statutes serve as “enforcement mechanisms for civil disabilities” and if the tribal court guarantees a right to counsel.

Michael Bryant, Jr., a Native American, was indicted on two counts of domestic assault by a habitual offender, violating 18 U.S.C. § 177(a). To support these charges against Bryant, the government relied on past convictions of domestic abuse in tribal court. In tribal court, Bryant’s convictions went uncounseled, because the Sixth Amendment does not apply to tribal court proceedings. The district court denied Bryant’s motion to dismiss the indictment, and Bryant was sentenced. On appeal, Bryant argues that his Sixth Amendment right was violated when the government used his past convictions in tribal court to prove an element of § 177(a), because he was not appointed counsel and the conviction resulted in imprisonment, which would make his convictions unconstitutional had they been obtained in federal or state court. The Ninth Circuit applied the analysis used in United States v. Ant in order to determine whether past convictions obtained in a forum that does not apply the Sixth Amendment may be used in subsequent proceedings that do comport with the Constitution. The panel held that past convictions against a defendant in tribal court, where the defendant was uncounseled and the conviction resulted in imprisonment, could not be introduced as evidence because it renders the conviction as “constitutionally infirm” and against the Sixth Amendment. However, the panel acknowledged that there is an exception to this general rule. Past convictions against an uncounseled defendant, leading to imprisonment, may be used in subsequent proceedings where the statute serves as an “enforcement mechanism for civil disabilities” and if the tribal court guarantees a right to counsel. Accordingly, the panel held that because at least one of his tribal court convictions was uncounseled, resulting in imprisonment, and the statute in question was not an enforcement mechanism for civil disabilities, therefore the charges against Bryant must be dismissed. REVERSED.

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