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Supreme Court rules ineffective assistance of counsel extends to pleadings

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 5-4 [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Missouri v. Frye [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel applies during "all 'critical' stages of the criminal proceedings," including considerations of plea offers that lapse or are rejected. Respondent Galin Frye was offered two deals by prosecutors during proceedings for driving with a revoked license, but Frye's attorney never informed his client about the offers and Frye pleaded guilty. The Missouri Court of Appeals held that the attorney's failure to inform his client about the plea offers amounted to unconstitutional ineffective assistance of counsel. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed that the constitutional protection applies during plea deal proceedings:

The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities in the plea bargain process, responsibilities that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires in the criminal process at critical stages ... [I]t is insufficient simply to point to the guarantee of a fair trial as a backstop that inoculates any errors in the pretrial process.
The court remanded the case, however, so that the appeals court could determine under the Strickland v. Washington [opinion text] standard for ineffective counsel whether the plea deal would have been held to by the prosecution and accepted by the trial court. If so, the court could make a finding that the defendant was prejudiced by his counsel's failure to inform him of the plea deals. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, suggesting that, because Frye ultimately pleaded guilty, his counsel deprived him "only of the opportunity to accept a plea bargain to which he had no entitlement in the first place."

The court also ruled 5-4 [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in a related case, Lafler v. Cooper [SCOTUSblog backgrounder], that Strickland is a "but-for" test to apply where a defendant claims his counsel's ineffective advice led him to a reject a plea offer and ultimately stand trial. The court held that a defendant could prevail on such a claim if a court finds that but-for the ineffective assistance of counsel there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to and accepted by the court, and that the conviction, sentence, or both, would have been less severe under the plea deal than those actually imposed. Anthony Cooper was charged with assault with intent to murder for shooting a woman in her thigh and buttocks. His attorney advised him to not take a plea offer in the belief that there could be no finding of the requisite intent. Cooper was tried in a full and fair jury trial, found guilty and sentenced to a punishment harsher than the sentence offered during the plea deal. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held [opinion, PDF] that the attorneys advice amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court agreed that Cooper had satisfied the test, and also indicated that a proper remedy would be for the prosecutor to re-offer the plea deal, after which a judge could decide to accept the deal or uphold the conviction. The court heard arguments [JURIST report] in both cases in October.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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