Appealing a Prior Conviction on Constitutional Grounds In California

In People v. Sumstine (1984) 36 Cal. 3d 909 206 Cal. Rptr. 707, 687 P.2d 904, the California Supreme Court considered whether a defendant, whose sentence was subject to enhancement by a prior conviction, was permitted to attack collaterally the validity of that conviction on Boykin/Tahl grounds. (Boykin v. Alabama (1969) 395 U.S. 238 89 S. Ct. 1709, 23 L. Ed. 2d 274 and In re Tahl (1969) 1 Cal. 3d 122 81 Cal. Rptr. 577, 460 P.2d 449) The court answered affirmatively, deciding that a defendant could question a prior conviction on any constitutional ground, including a Boykin/Tahl violation. "When a defendant has made allegations sufficient to justify a hearing, the court must conduct an evidentiary hearing in the fashion set forth in People v. Coffey (1967) 67 Cal. 2d 204 60 Cal. Rptr. 457, 430 P.2d 15: 'The prosecutor shall first have the burden of producing evidence of the prior conviction sufficient to justify a finding that defendant "has suffered such previous conviction." (Pen. Code, 1025.) . . . When this prima facie showing has been made, the defendant shall thereupon have the burden of producing evidence that his constitutional Boykin/Tahl rights were infringed in the prior proceeding at issue. . . . If defendant bears this burden, the prosecution shall have the right to produce evidence in rebuttal.' . . ." (Sumstine, supra, 36 Cal. 3d at p. 923.) The application of Boykin to prior convictions under federal law arose in Custis v. United States (1994) 511 U.S. 485 114 S. Ct. 1732, 128 L. Ed. 2d 517. There, Custis unsuccessfully challenged the validity of his prior state conviction on the ground he had been denied effective assistance of counsel. the court concluded that a defendant may not collaterally attack the validity of a prior conviction on any ground except a denial of the right to counsel under Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) 372 U.S. 335 83 S. Ct. 792, 9 L. Ed. 2d 799, 93 A.L.R.2d 733. "We think that since the decision in Johnson v. Zerbst (1938) 304 U.S. 458 82 L. Ed.1461 more than a half century ago, . . . there has been a theme that failure to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant was a unique constitutional defect. Custis attacks his previous convictions claiming the denial of the effective assistance of counsel, that his guilty plea was not knowing and intelligent, and that he had not been adequately advised of his rights in opting for a 'stipulated facts' trial. None of these alleged constitutional violations rises to the level of a jurisdictional defect resulting from the failure to appoint counsel at all. "Ease of administration also supports the distinction. As revealed in a number of the cases cited in this opinion, failure to appoint counsel at all will generally appear from the judgment roll itself, or from an accompanying minute order. But determination of claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, and failure to assure that a guilty plea was voluntary, would require sentencing courts to rummage through frequently nonexistent or difficult to obtain state-court transcripts or records that may date from another era, and may come from any one of the 50 states. "The interest in promoting the finality of judgments provides additional support for our constitutional conclusion. . . . This principle bears extra weight in cases in which the prior convictions, such as one challenged by Custis, are based on guilty pleas, because when a guilty plea is at issue, 'the concern with finality served by the limitation on collateral attack has special force." (Custis, supra, 511 U.S. at pp. 496-497 114 S. Ct. at pp. 1738-1739.) Thus, there is no right to collaterally challenge a prior conviction on federal constitutional grounds except in cases involving Gideon error.