Ninth Circuit Reaffirms that Uncounseled Tribal Court Convictions Resulting in Jail Time May Not Be Used to Enhance Federal Sentences

Here is the opinion in United States v. Bryant.

From the court’s syllabus:

The panel reversed the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss an indictment charging the defendant, an Indian, with two counts of domestic assault by a habitual offender, in
violation of 18 U.S.C. § 117(a).

Applying United States v. Ant, 882 F.2d 1389 (9th Cir. 1989), the panel held that, subject to the narrow exception recognized in case law for statutes that serve merely as enforcement mechanisms for civil disabilities, tribal court convictions may be used in subsequent prosecutions only if the tribal court guarantees a right to counsel that is, at minimum, coextensive with the Sixth Amendment right. Because the defendant’s tribal court domestic abuse convictions would have violated the Sixth Amendment had they been obtained in federal or state court, the panel concluded that it is constitutionally impermissible to use them to establish an element of the offense in a subsequent prosecution under § 117(a), which is an ordinary recidivist statute and not a criminal enforcement scheme for a civil disability.

Concurring, Judge Watford wrote separately to highlight
why Ant warrants reexamination.

Judge Watford correctly notes that a circuit split on this issue has arisen with the Eighth and Tenth Circuits:

It’s perhaps unsurprising that our decision in this case conflicts with decisions from two of our sister circuits. Faced with almost identical scenarios—prior, uncounseled tribal court convictions that would have violated the Sixth Amendment in state or federal court and that were used as predicate offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 117—the Eighth and Tenth Circuits pointedly disagreed with us. See United States v. Cavanaugh, 643 F.3d 592, 595, 604 (8th Cir. 2011); United States v. Shavanaux, 647 F.3d 993, 995–98 (10th Cir. 2011). As our colleagues on the Eighth Circuit noted, “Supreme Court authority in this area is unclear; reasonable decisionmakers may differ in their conclusions as to whether the Sixth Amendment precludes a federal court’s subsequent use of convictions that are valid because and only because they arose in a court where the Sixth Amendment did not  apply.” Cavanaugh, 643 F.3d at 605. Given this circuit split and the lack of clarity in this area of Sixth Amendment law, the Supreme Court’s intervention seems warranted.

If nothing else, the case at least may generate support for en banc review. We posted materials on these two cases here (the Supreme Court denied cert). I wrote about this issue a few years ago in a paper titled “Sovereign Comity.

Here are the briefs:

Bryant Opening Brief

US Brief

Bryant Reply Brief

Bryant Supplemental Brief

US Supplemental Brief