Today the ACLU of Michigan, in a letter to district court judges across the state, requested that steps be taken to free prisoners who were either convicted on or who pled guilty to misdemeanor charges and not afforded or waived right to counsel prior to the sentencing.

The request comes two days after the United States Supreme Court ruled that Alabama courts violated a man’s Sixth Amendment rights when it imposed a suspended jail sentence on him without providing him with counsel or giving him the opportunity to waive his right to counsel.

In the letter, ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss stated: “Since we believe hundreds of Michigan misdemeanants are currently serving jail sentences that have become null and void as a result of Shelton, we are writing you, along with every other district judge in Michigan, to request that you immediately identify and order the release of all such persons you have committed to jail.”

The Shelton decision unquestionably invalidates a practice that was common in Alabama and several other states, including Michigan. See People v. Reichenbach, 459 Mich 109, 120-122 (1998). Governmental authorities responsible for continuing the incarceration of anyone who has been held under these circumstances could find themselves in a civil lawsuit and/or claims for injunctive relief.

The Supreme Court's ruling is unambiguous: "Deprived of counsel when tried, convicted and sentenced, and unable to challenge the original judgment at a subsequent probation revocation hearing, a defendant in Shelton's circumstances faces incarceration on a conviction that has never been subjected to `the crucible of meaningful adversarial testing.' The Sixth Amendment does not countenance this result." Shelton, slip op. at 5.

The Supreme Court makes clear that any portion of such a person's sentence that could result in future imprisonment is invalid per se and must be vacated, but the conviction itself remains valid.