Plea Bargaining Errors Can Now Be Challenged

March 21, 2012  •  Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

The United States Supreme Court has established a new important constitutional remedy–to challenge the results of a plea bargain that was accepted or rejected because of bad legal advice.

The Supreme Court today decided two cases that define when and how plea bargain errors can be challenged.  In Missouri v. Frye, the Court decided that the constitutional right to receive a competent legal defense also applies to the plea bargaining phase.  Thus, when a lawyer representing a criminal defendant acts incompetently when advising whether to accept or reject a plea bargain, the accused’s constitutional rights have been violated.

The Court’s decision in Lafler v. Cooper shows how judges should in the future handle lawyers who are incompetent in advising their clients about plea bargains.  Anthony Cooper was charged under Michigan law with an intent to commit murder, possession of a firearm by a felon, and possession of marijuana. The prosecuting attorney offerred to drop some of the charges in exchange for Cooper pleading guilty to charges that brought with them a prison sentence of between 51 and 85 months.

Cooper’s defense attorney advised against accepting the plea bargain. The lawyer believed that the prosecution couldn’t prove an intent to murder because Cooper didn’t point his gun above the waist of the person he shot. Cooper accepted his lawyer’s advice and his case proceeded to trial, where he was found guilty on all the charges.  Cooper was sentenced  to a mandatory minimum prsion sentence of  15-30 years.  Under this sentence, Cooper will spend at least twice as many years in prison as he would have under the plea bargain he rejected.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Cooper was close–a 5 to 4 vote–it’s clear that Cooper’s lawyer acted incompetently.  His belief that intent to murder requires that the gun be pointed above the waist was simply wrong.  The difference between the judges is what they decided to do about this mistake. Four Supreme Court Justices concluded that Cooper was out of luck because he had a fair trial.  But a majority of Justices decided that Cooper’s constitutional rights were violated.

Thus, the Supreme Court decided that, when a lawyer acts incompetently in connection with a plea bargain, the accused may be able to get the benefit of the original plea bargain offer.  The Court did not spell out how all cases involving plea bargain mistakes should be handled.  When you can show that a lawyer acted incompetently, and that there is a reasonable chance that the accused would have accepted the plea bargain and the judge would have approved it, a judge has wide discretion as to how to proceed. It appears that a judge can order the prosecutor to re-offer the plea bargain that was previously rejected.

What does this mean for people who are involved in the plea bargain process?  First, make sure you are being represented by someone who is experienced and knows what they are doing. This is yet another example why it’s critical to hire an experienced  criminal defense lawyer.  Second, if you or someone you know believe that you accepted or rejected a plea bargain in Los Angeles or in Southern California that was based on a clear error that was made by a criminal defense lawyer, you may be able to get the benefit of the original plea bargain that was offered.  The Supreme Court’s decisions do not mean that plea bargain mistakes will always be fixed.  Overturning a criminal conviction is always a long and difficult fight that is rarely succesful, but now you at least have a chance to fix plea bargain mistakes made by lawyers.


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