Right to Counsel in Misdemeanor Prosecutions After Alabama v. Shelton: No-lawyer-courts and their consequences on the poor and communities of color in St. Louis

Under U.S. Supreme Court cases Argersinger v. Hamlin and Alabama v. Shelton, the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires the provision of defense counsel to an indigent defendant for any charge that, if proved, actually leads to imprisonment or is punished by a suspended sentence that subsequently could lead to imprisonment. This article uses St. Louis as a case study to demonstrate that unconstitutional criminal procedures and underfunded public defender’s offices create no-lawyer-courts—courts that unconstitutionally allow defendants to go unrepresented. In a period of observation spanning 2014-2016, we found that St. Louis courts violated the right to counsel in misdemeanor prosecutions through lengthy confinements and exorbitant bonds, abusive plea bargaining practices, invalid waivers, and unconstitutional sentences. Drawing from court observations and electronic data, this study highlights how constitutional doctrine’s grant of procedural discretion to lower courts imposes injustice on poor and minority communities in practice.