As any experienced Idaho criminal defense lawyer will tell you, the vast majority of cases are resolved with a plea bargain long before they ever reach a courtroom. Plea bargains are important to prosecutors because they help efficiently clear dockets and allow them to prosecute more cases. They can also be beneficial to defendants by allowing them to serve a lesser sentence than what the state would ask for during trial. However, a plea bargain can only be effective if the defendant is aware of it in the first place.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that defense lawyers must inform their clients of any plea offers and give competent advice about whether to accept them. To do otherwise would violate the 6th Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.
The two cases before the court involved a man in Missouri who pleaded guilty to driving without a license, and a Michigan man who was convicted of assault and attempted murder after following his attorney’s advice and rejecting a plea bargain.
In the Missouri case, Galin Edward Frye was arrested for driving without a license for the fourth time, a felony. The prosecutor offered two deals, including one that involved pleading to a misdemeanor and a three month recommended sentence. Frye’s attorney never told him of the offer, which ultimately led to him entering a guilty plea and getting a three year sentence.
In the Michigan case, Anthony Cooper repeatedly shot a woman, and was charged with four counts, including assault with attempt to murder. The prosecutors offered a plea deal where two of the charges would be dropped and Cooper would serve a maximum of 85 month in prison. Due to incorrect advice from his attorney, Cooper rejected the deal and was sentenced to a maximum of 30 years in prison.
In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote:
“This court now holds that, as a general rule, defense counsel has the duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused… when the defense counsel allowed the offer to expire without advising the defendant or allowing him to consider it, defense counsel did not render the effective assistance the Constitution requires.”
Justice Scalia dissented, claiming that the decision was “absurd” and that courts would be inundated with criminals making claims about how their plea bargain rights were violated. He also noted that it was unfair that prosecutors were being punished with extra work due to the errors of defense counsel. In his own dissent, Justice Alito also worried about “[expenditures] of scarce prosecutorial or judicial resources.”
Both cases will be sent back down to the lower courts for further review. It remains to be seen if this “flood of claims regarding the violation of plea bargain rights” feared by the conservative justices will actually come true.
So what will be the impact on plea bargains in Idaho? First, these cases raise the bar for all of us who advise clients on the effect their plea will have. Make certain you understand what the State or US is agreeing to before you plead. Second, ask your lawyer if he or she has had any additional offers from the prosecution. Formal offer or not, you need to know just where your case is going and just what the prosecutors will do in exchange for your plea.