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Supreme Court Extends Sixth Amendment Protection to Rejected Plea Offers

The U.S. criminal system has largely become a system of pleas. According to the Department of Justice, 98% of federal convictions and 94% of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas, with a large part of these arising from plea bargains between the prosecution and defendant.

Consequently, the Supreme Court of the U.S. has extended the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to the plea bargain process. In a recent case, Lafler v. Cooper, the Court addressed the right to counsel in the context of pleas that are rejected by a defendant on the mistaken advice of their attorney.

The Defendant in Lafler v. Cooper was charged with assault with the intent to murder and three additional offenses. In exchange for a guilty plea, the prosecution offered to recommend a 51-to-85 month sentence for two of the charges and dismiss the other two.

The defendant rejected the offer on the advice of his attorney that the State would not be able to establish his intent to murder the Victim because Defendant shot the Victim below the waist. The Defendant was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 185-to-360 months.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the accused in all criminal trials the effective assistance of counsel. The right to effective assistance of counsel applies to all “critical stages” in a criminal proceeding. Critical stages include arraignment, post indictment line-ups, post indictment interrogation, entering a plea of guilty, and the plea bargaining process.

To analyze whether the ineffective assistance rises to a Sixth Amendment violation, courts must follow a two-part test set out in Strickland v. Washington. Under the Strickland test, a defendant must show that (1) counsel‘s advice fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and (2) but for counsel‘s ineffective advice, the outcome of the case would have been different.

Adapting the Strickland standard to cases in which an offer is rejected due to ineffective advice, the Court announced a new test to prove the second Strickland prong. In cases like this one, once the defendant has proved that counsel offered ineffective advice, a defendant must also prove that but for the advice there is a reasonable probability that (1) the plea offer would have been presented to the court, (2) that the court would have accepted the terms, and (3) that the sentence, conviction, or both would have been less severe under the offer‘s terms than under the actual judgment or sentence that resulted.

Having established both parts of the Strickland test as modified in this case, the Court went on to address the type of remedy that should be available to a defendant. The Court stated that while the remedy “must neutralize the taint” of the Sixth Amendment violation, it must not give the defendant a bonus or waste the resources invested by the state in prosecuting the case.

To this end, the Court announced that in cases like this, there are several remedies that a court may choose from depending on the particular facts. If the only difference between having accepted and rejected the plea involves sentencing, the court must have an evidentiary hearing where it is determined whether there is a reasonable probability that defendant would have accepted the plea offer. If the court finds the defendant would have taken the plea, it can decide whether to grant the terms of the plea, the sentencing at trial, or a different sentence.

On the other hand, there may be other instances where this remedy would not be sufficient. In cases where the plea offer dismissed counts for which the defendant was later convicted at trial or where there are mandatory sentencing guidelines, the Court held that the remedy might require the prosecution to reoffer the plea. Once the plea is offered again, the court may choose to accept the plea and vacate the conviction, or leave the conviction as-is.

As such, the outcome will depend on the circumstance of each case, and may in large part be dependent upon the particular trial judge. The dissent argued that the case would open a floodgate of challenges. This remains to be seen but rest assured the latitude left the judge in deciding what to do with the defective plea leaves open enormous room for further dispute.

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