High court expands rights of criminal defendants

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness,” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

The Supreme Court has ruled 5 to 4 that a defendant has a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel during plea bargaining in criminal cases. The opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy has been widely recognized as a great expansion for the rights of the accused in this country.

The ruling stemmed from two separate cases. In one Missouri v. Frye, the defendant, Frye was arrested for a fourth time for driving with a revoked license. He was charged with a felony and was facing a maximum term of four years in prison. The prosecutor offered Frye’s defense lawyer a deal: if Frye pleaded guilty, the charge would be reduced to a misdemeanor and the prosecutor would recommend a 90-day sentence. Frye was never informed of the offer by his attorney. The deal lapsed, Frye was arrested a fifth time, and plead guilty. He was then sentenced to three years in prison. Frye challenged the sentence, arguing that his defense lawyer’s ineffective assistance violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.

In the second case, Lafler v. Cooper, the defendant Cooper shot a woman below the waist and he was charged with assault with intent to murder. The state offered Cooper a deal on a number of occasions with a sentencing recommendation of 51 to 85 months. Cooper’s attorney advised him to reject the deal because Michigan state law didn’t allow an attempted murder conviction for wounds below the waist. His attorney was wrong. Cooper went to trial and was convicted. He was then sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 185 to 360 months in prison. Cooper challenged the conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel grounds. 

Kennedy, pierced through the notion that criminal defendants only have the right to effective assistance of counsel in the trial context, noting most criminal cases are disposed of through plea bargaining and not through a trial. The Sixth Amendment already guarantees those accused of a crime the right to a trial. The court has previously ruled that in a trial, defendants have the right to effective assistance of counsel. The thornier question presented before the court here was whether that effective assistance extended to plea bargains.

“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Kennedy wrote for the majority. “The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining takes in securing convictions and determining sentences.”

 As a result of this ruling, criminal defendants who receive inadequate legal advice on pretrial plea bargains can have their sentences overturned if they can show they would have 1) accepted the original offer, 2) that the state would not have withdrawn the offer later on, and 3) the court would have accepted the plea agreement.

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