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
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,
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.]