Volume 10, Issue 4 - May 2012

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Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376 (2012)*

The decision in Lafler v. Cooper will change the criminal plea-bargaining system. The Court held that criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel during plea negotiations, including when a defendant rejects a plea bargain because of bad legal advice. In Lafler, the attorney mistakenly informed the defendant that the state could not establish intent to murder, a necessary element of its case, because the defendant had shot the victim below her waist. Due to his attorney’s advice, the defendant rejected a guilty plea and was later convicted at trial.  The defendant was sentenced to a much longer prison term than the plea offer. 

In a five-four majority decision, Justice Kennedy reasoned that the right to effective counsel extends to the plea bargaining process because plea bargaining is so pervasive in the justice system. The Court rejected the argument that a fair trial remedies defense counsel’s ineptitude during plea-bargaining, because the negotiation of a plea is during a “critical stage” of the criminal proceeding for a defendant. Id. at 1385. Justice Scalia dissented, claiming the decision is inconsistent with decades of precedent and inconsistent with the Sixth Amendment. The dissent criticized the majority opinion, fearing that the “new field of constitutionalized criminal procedure: plea-bargaining law” will create ample litigation. Id. at 1391.

The majority focused on the standards for prejudice and the appropriate remedy.  The majority held that the defendant has the burden to show that the defendant would have accepted the plea “but for the ineffective advice of counsel”, and the sentence would have been less severe under the plea offer than the judgment imposed. Id. at 1385.  The remedy must neutralize the constitutional violation, without granting a windfall to the defendant.  The majority found that this remedy could be a trial court’s evidentiary hearing and re-sentencing, or in situations where a mandatory sentence is required, the court could require the prosecution to reoffer the plea offer. The trial court then could exercise its discretion in determining whether to vacate the conviction and to re-sentence the defendant under the plea bargain or leave the conviction undisturbed. Future litigation likely will ensue when lower courts try to determine when counsel’s plea advice is constitutionally ineffective, how trial courts should exercise their discretion in these cases, and the resulting remedy.

* The decision can also be found on the website of the Supreme Court of the United States


**Summary by Whitney Siehl, Moritz class of 2013.

Posted in: Volume 10, Issue 4

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