Supreme Court Rules Defendants Entitled to Competent Representation in Plea Bargaining

Posted March 26, 2012 in Landmark Court Cases by

The Supreme Court ruled last week that criminal defendants have the right to effective counsel when it comes to plea bargain agreements, expanding the guarantee of good legal representation beyond the courtroom and into the negotiating room.

The upshot for defendants: If you feel you got improper advice on taking a plea, or went to trial unaware that a plea offer even existed, you now have legal recourse to appeal.


Sixth Amendment Requirements

The court ruled 5-4 in favor of expanding the guarantee, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing the opinion for the majority. Key to the decision is the fact that well over 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved via plea bargain. If that’s the primary way justice is dispensed in the country, the justices reasoned, then constitutional protections for defendants should be cemented in the process. “The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities . . . that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires,” Kennedy wrote.

To claim that counsel was ineffective, a defendant would have to show that he or she would have accepted a plea deal given the proper information and advice, that the prosecution wouldn’t have withdrawn the offer, and that the result would have been acceptable to the judge.

Justice Antonin Scalia led the four judges who voted against the measure, writing in a dissent “Today . . . the Supreme Court of the United States elevates plea bargaining from a necessary evil to a constitutional entitlement,” arguing that pleas give defendants an opportunity “to escape a fair trial and get less punishment than they deserve.”

The ruling stemmed from consideration of two cases, one where a defendant never knew of plea offers on the table, and another where the defendant turned down a plea offer after his lawyer told them he couldn’t be convicted of the most serious charges against him, then went on to be convicted by a jury anyway.


Knowing and Intelligent Decisions

The result is likely to be an increase in appeals from convicted defendants arguing that their attorneys let them down in the negotiation process. “This opinion certainly opens the door for additional post-conviction litigation,” says Florida criminal defense attorney Ian Goldstein. “Our system of justice requires that a criminal defendant be afforded effective assistance of counsel at every stage in the proceedings.”

Attorney Ian Goldstein

While critics, including Scalia, have correctly argued that plea bargains are not a constitutional right, the reality is they have become an integral part of the justice system– about 97 percent of federal and 94 percent of state convictions come via plea arrangement. “I think the Supreme Court’s opinion underscores how important it is for a defendant to make knowing and intelligent decisions during the plea negotiation process,” Goldstein says. “As the Court noted, in today’s criminal justice system, the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by way of a plea. Furthermore, the outcome of a case can vary greatly depending on whether a defendant decides to enter into a plea agreement instead of proceeding to a jury trial.”

“The bottom line seems to be that the accused are entitled to be advised of any potential plea offer, and to have the effective assistance of counsel in making the decision to either accept or reject that offer,” Goldstein explains. “While it may result in additional litigation, I think it is hard to argue that this is not a sound legal decision. To find otherwise is to say that only the approximately 5% of defendants who are convicted at trial are entitled to effective representation.”

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