United States v. Bryant, 579 U.S. ___ (2016)




NOTE:?Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.?S. 321 .



certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 15?420.?Argued April 19, 2016?Decided June 13, 2016


In response to the high incidence of domestic violence against Native American women, Congress enacted a felony offense of domestic assault in Indian country by a habitual offender. 18 U.?S.?C. ?117(a). Section 117(a)(1) provides that any person who ?commits a domestic assault within .?.?. Indian country? and who has at least two prior final convictions for domestic violence rendered ?in Federal, State, or Indian tribal court proceedings .?.?. shall be fined .?.?. , imprisoned for a term of not more than 5 years, or both .?.?.?.? Having two prior tribal-court convictions for domestic violence crimes is thus a predicate of the new offense.

This case raises the question whether ?117(a)?s inclusion of tribal-court convictions as predicate offenses is compatible with the Sixth Amendment?s right to counsel. The Sixth Amendment guarantees indigent defendants appointed counsel in any state or federal criminal proceeding in which a term of imprisonment is imposed, Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.?S. 367 ?374, but it does not apply in tribal-court proceedings, see Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co., 554 U.?S. 316 . The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (ICRA), which governs tribal-court proceedings, accords a range of procedural safeguards to tribal-court defendants ?similar, but not identical, to those contained in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment,? Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.?S. 49 . In particular, ICRA provides indigent defendants with a right to appointed counsel only for sentences exceeding one year. 25 U.?S.?C. ?1302(c)(2). ICRA?s right to counsel therefore is not coextensive with the Sixth Amendment right.

This Court has held that a conviction obtained in state or federal court in violation of a defendant?s Sixth Amendment right to counsel cannot be used in a subsequent proceeding ?to support guilt or enhance punishment for another offense.? Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.?S. 109 . Use of a constitutionally infirm conviction would cause ?the accused in effect [to] suffe[r] anew from the [prior] deprivation of [his] Sixth Amendment right.? Ibid. Burgett?s principle was limited by the Court?s holding in Nichols v. United States, 511 U.?S. 738 , that ?an uncounseled misdemeanor conviction, valid under Scott because no prison term was imposed, is also valid when used to enhance punishment at a subsequent conviction,? id., at 748?749.

Respondent Michael Bryant, Jr., has multiple tribal-court convictions for domestic assault. When convicted, Bryant was indigent and was not appointed counsel. For most of his convictions, he was sentenced to terms of imprisonment not exceeding one year?s duration. Because of his short prison terms, the prior tribal-court proceedings complied with ICRA, and his convictions were therefore valid when entered. Based on domestic assaults he committed in 2011, Bryant was indicted on two counts of domestic assault by a habitual offender, in violation of ?117(a). Represented in federal court by appointed counsel, he contended that the Sixth Amendment precluded use of his prior, uncounseled, tribal-court misdemeanor convictions to satisfy ?117(a)?s predicate-offense element and moved to dismiss the indictment. The District Court denied the motion; Bryant pleaded guilty, reserving the right to appeal. The Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction and directed dismissal of the indictment. It comprehended that Bryant?s uncounseled tribal-court convictions were valid when entered because the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not apply in tribal-court proceedings. It held, however, that Bryant?s tribal-court convictions could not be used as predicate convictions within ?117(a)?s compass because they would have violated the Sixth Amendment had they been rendered in state or federal court.

Held:?Because Bryant?s tribal-court convictions occurred in proceedings that complied with ICRA and were therefore valid when entered, use of those convictions as predicate offenses in a ?117(a) prosecution does not violate the Constitution.

Nichols instructs that convictions valid when entered retain that status when invoked in a subsequent proceeding. Nichols reasoned that ?[e]nhancement statutes .?.?. do not change the penalty imposed for the earlier conviction?; rather, repeat-offender laws ?penaliz[e] only the last offense committed by the defendant.? 511 U.?S., at 747. Bryant?s sentence for violating ?117(a) punishes his most recent acts of domestic assault, not his prior crimes prosecuted in tribal court. He was denied no right to counsel in tribal court, and his Sixth Amendment right was honored in federal court. Bryant acknowledges that Nichols would have allowed reliance on uncounseled tribal-court convictions resulting in fines to satisfy ?117(a)?s prior-crimes predicate. But there is no cause to distinguish for ?117(a) purposes between fine-only tribal-court convictions and valid but uncounseled tribal-court convictions resulting in imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year. Neither violates the Sixth Amendment. Bryant is not aided by Burgett. A defendant convicted in tribal court suffered no Sixth Amendment violation in the first instance, so he cannot ?suffe[r] anew? from a prior deprivation in his federal prosecution.

Bryant also invokes the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to support his assertion that tribal-court judgments should not be used as predicate offenses under ?117(a). ICRA, however, guarantees ?due process of law,? accords other procedural safeguards, and permits a prisoner to challenge the fundamental fairness of tribal court proceedings in federal habeas corpus proceedings. Because proceedings in compliance with ICRA sufficiently ensure the reliability of tribal-court convictions, the use of those convictions in a federal prosecution does not violate a defendant?s due process right. Pp.?12?16.

769 F.?3d 671, reversed and remanded.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion.