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Saturday, March 24, 2012

SCOTUS Holds Effective Assistance of Counsel Applies to Criminal Plea Bargains

On numerous occasions over the years, I've represented criminally charged shooters from Detroit over in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. Rough ride folks.

Last week, the SCOTUS issued a very significant 5-4 decision in a shooting case straight outta Detroit. In Lafler v Cooper, and it's companion case, Missouri v Frye, the High Court held that the 6th Amendment guarantee of the effective assistance of counsel in a criminal proceeding, applies to the plea bargain process.

In the Lafler case, the defendant tossed a shot toward the head of his victim, but missed.  She fled, he pursued, spewing lead.  In the end, he caught her in the buttock and abdomen; she survived the assault.

Charged with attempted murder, Lafler faced the music over in the FMHJ; the "Murph" as we defense attorneys refer to that meat-grinder of a court house.  [Some may recall the building as the old Detroit "Recorders Court".]  As is very common in Wayne County murder and attempted murder cases, he was offered a deal: plead guilty and do less time.

His criminal defense lawyer believed he could beat the case on the theory Lafler did not attempt to murder his victim, because he shot her in the butt.  Yeah, good luck with that buddy.  Based on this legal advice, Lafler rejected the plea offer and went to trial.

The jury wasn't having it, convicting Lafler on all counts.  He was sentenceed to a term of imprisionment that far exceeded what the prosecutor offered.

The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected Lafler's "ineffective assistance of counsel" argument, and the Michigan Supreme Court declined further appeal.  Next, Lafler filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. 

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the 6th Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of legal counsel in all critical phases of the criminal process applies to the plea bargain process.  This decision was affirmed by a sharply divided Supreme Court, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing for the majority, and with the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia reading his dissent from the SCOTUS chamber when the opinion was announced.

SCOTUS held that the right to effective assistance of counsel does indeed attach during the plea process; almost always THE critical point in the criminal prosecution according to Justice Kennedy.  He's right on that count.

The High Court ultimately held that when an accused "misses out" on the plea bargain process, or rejects a plea due to bad legal advice, as in Lafler, then the 6th Amendment is violated.  Justice Kennedy remanded the case to the lower federal court with instruction for that court to mandate the state court to re-offer the plea bargain, or to leave the defendant's conviction and sentence undisturbed.  The sentencing judge over at the FMHJ must perform a "balancing test" to decide which way to go.  See why we need lawyers...

Justice Scalia did not agree that the plea negotiation process was within the scope of the 6th Amendment's right to counsel.  Along with the other Justices in dissent, Scalia also crituqued the majority's failure to properly define the government parameters in this newly created constitutional right of plea bargaining.  The dissent sees years of additional litigation over plea bargains gone bad.

So pay attention to those plea offers all you criminal defense lawyers out there, or your representation may be deemed, er, ineffective.

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