Hopt v. Utah, 110 U.S. 574 (1884)

2012-07-12 20:21:39

The nineteenth-century Supreme Court rarely decided criminal procedure issues because it lacked appellate jurisdiction in criminal cases until the end of the century. An exception existed for writs of error to territorial courts, as in Hopt v. Utah, a significant early case addressing a number of rights of the accused.

Hopt’s first-degree murder conviction in the Utah Territory was overturned during the 1881 October term. After a second conviction, the Supreme Court again reversed. The unanimous Court, in an opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan I, identified three grounds for reversal, including improper admission of hearsay and flawed jury instructions. Most significantly, the Court held that the trial court erred in excluding Hopt from voir dire challenges to several jurors, declaring that criminal defendants could not waive the right to be present at every stage of the proceedings when substantial rights might be affected. This sweeping dicta has been rejected in subsequent cases, including Illinois v. Allen (1970).

Hopt was also the Court’s first confession case. In dicta, the Court adopted the common-law voluntariness doctrine, which renders inadmissible confessions induced by threats or promises sufficient to overcome a defendant’s free will. Thirteen years later, in Brams v. United States (1897), the Court would provide this right with a constitutional basis in the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

Hopt is also cited for holding that a change in Utah law, enacted after the murder, that made convicted felons competent witnesses did not violate the ex post facto clause.


References and Further Reading

  • LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King. Criminal Procedure. 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: West, 1999.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532 (1897)
  • Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337 (1970)

See also Coerced Confession/Police Interrogation; Ex Post Facto Clause; Jury Trial Right