The U.S. Supreme Court’s last term was marked by decisions of monumental importance. While the Court’s decision on “Obamacare” and Arizona’s controversial immigration law received a lot of media attention, two decisions, which shared relatively little of the spotlight, will have a wide-ranging impact on the criminal justice system. In two related cases, Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper, the Court voted 5–4 to expand the rights of criminal defendants in the plea bargaining process.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to counsel. That protection has long warranted new trials in cases where those accused were not provided with effective assistance at trial. Similarly, the right was extended to situations where counsel advised a criminal defendant to accept a plea bargain. Both of those situations involve the clear denial of a fair trial as a result of the defense counsel’s conduct. However, the cases before the Court this term differed in that defense attorneys’ ineffective assistance caused the defendants to reject plea bargains.
In Missouri v. Frye, the defendant was arrested for a fourth time for driving with a revoked license and charged with a felony. The prosecutor offered Frye’s defense lawyer a deal: If Frye pleaded guilty, the charge would be reduced to a misdemeanor, and the prosecutor would recommend a 90-day sentence. Frye was never informed of the offer by his attorney. The deal lapsed, Frye was arrested a fifth time, and plead guilty. He was then sentenced to three years in prison.
In Lafler v. Cooper, the defendant did not accept an offer of 51–85 months in prison for a guilty plea on a charge of assault with intent to kill because his defense attorney told him he could not be found guilty of attempted murder when he shot the victim below the waist. The attorney was wrong. The defendant was convicted and received a sentence of 15–30 years in prison.
The majority opinion in Frye, authored by Justice Kennedy, noted that approximately 95 percent of convictions are secured as a result of plea bargains. Indeed, he stated that the plea bargaining process “is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.”
While Justice Scalia authored a stinging dissent to both opinions, the majority opinions ultimately held that a defendant, to overturn a sentence, must show that (1) they would have accepted the plea offer, (2) the offer would not have been withdrawn before trial, and (3) a judge would have accepted the plea bargain.
Nonetheless, Frye and Lafler still leave a lot of questions unanswered with regard to both application of the changed law and the proper remedies in cases of ineffective assistance at the plea bargaining stage. However, the decisions could result in huge improvements in the assistance rendered to accused persons during the plea bargaining process.