High Court Expands Defendants’ Plea Bargain Rights
For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that defendants have a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in plea bargains. In a 5-4 decision Wednesday, the court went further, declaring that when a lawyer acts unethically or gives clearly wrong advice, the defendant may be entitled to a second chance at accepting a plea offer.
The court’s ruling came in two cases. In one, Missouri college student Galin Frye was charged with a felony for a fourth offense of driving with a revoked license. The prosecutor sent Frye’s lawyer a letter offering to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor if Frye would plead guilty and agree to a 90-day sentence. The lawyer, however, never informed his client of the offer, and when it expired, an uninformed Frye pleaded guilty with no conditions and was sentenced to three years in prison, more than 10 times the plea bargain offer.
In a second case, Anthony Cooper was charged with assault with intent to murder after he shot a woman in the thigh and buttocks. Prosecutors twice offered a plea deal with a recommended prison term of four to seven years, but Cooper’s lawyer advised him to reject the offer, because the lawyer said Michigan law did not permit an attempted murder conviction for wounds below the waist. The advice was indisputably wrong and Cooper was tried, convicted and sentenced to three times as much prison time.
In both cases, the state conceded that the defense lawyers provided ineffective legal assistance to their clients. But the states contended that didn’t matter since there is no constitutional right to a plea bargain. On Wednesday, however, the Supreme Court rejected that argument by a 5-4 vote.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, shown on Capitol Hill in April 2011, wrote the court’s ruling Wednesday that for the most part, plea bargaining determines “who goes to jail and for how long. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system. It is the criminal justice system.”
I believe that there are cases that need to be re-opened in Montana due to ineffective counsel. When the ACLU has to step in due to Montana public defenders not doing their jobs for several different reasons there is definitely a problem. When a public defender in Montana has to lie to her client to enforce a plea bargain that is just plain unethical.