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Iowa v. Tovar

Case Name
Iowa v. Tovar
541 U.S. 77
Unanimous Decision
Authoring Judge
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Judge(s) - Majority
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, William Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer
U.S. Supreme Court
On Review From
Iowa Supreme Court
Decision Year


Defendant pled guilty to operating a motor vehicle under the influence (OWI) without counsel in 1996. First time OWI is considered a serious misdemeanor. In 1998, defendant was convicted of a second OWI, this time pleading guilty with counsel. A second time OWI is considered an aggravated misdemeanor. In 2000, defendant was charged with a third OWI and driving while a license barred. Third-offense OWI, and any OWI offenses thereafter, rank as class “D” felonies. Defendant, with assistance of counsel, pled not guilty to both charges. Counsel for defendant filed a Motion for Adjudication of Law Points, arguing that defendant’s 1996 conviction could not advance the 2000 charge to a third offense OWI because defendant’s waiver of counsel in 1996 was not fully knowing, intelligent, and voluntary because he was never made aware by the court of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation. The court denied the motion and defendant was convicted at a non-jury trial. The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed, but the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed, holding that defendant’s first plea was invalid and that a defendant who chooses to plead guilty without counsel must be warned by the court of two things to comply with the Sixth Amendment: (1) that waiving the assistance of counsel in deciding whether to plead guilty runs the risk that a viable defense will be overlooked; and (2) that by waiving his right to an attorney he will lose the opportunity to obtain an independent opinion on whether, under the facts and applicable law, it is wise to plead guilty. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Sixth Amendment does not require those specific admonitions to a pro se defendant. The Court said that the information a defendant must have to waive counsel intelligently is dependent on a case by case analysis, involving specific facts and law applicable to the case at hand. Applying these warnings as mandatory under the Sixth Amendment may confuse a defendant more than help him. In addition, it is the defendant’s burden to prove that he did not competently and intelligently waive his right to the assistance of counsel, which the defendant in this case did not assert or prove.

Key Quote

“The warnings the Iowa Supreme Court declared mandatory might be misconstrued as a veiled suggestion that a meritorious defense exists or that the defendant could plead to a lesser charge, when neither prospect is a realistic one. If a defendant delays his plea in the vain hope that counsel could uncover a tenable basis for contesting or reducing the criminal charge, the prompt disposition of the case will be impeded, and the resources of either the State (if the defendant is indigent) or the defendant himself (if he is financially ineligible for appointed counsel) will be wasted.” p.93