March 30, 2012
On March 21, 2012 the Supreme Court announced its decisions in Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye. The questions in both cases revolved around what happens when a criminal defendant receives deficient legal advice. In Lafler v. Cooper, the Court considered whether a criminal defendant who rejects a favorable plea offer based on his lawyer’s advice and later is convicted and received a harsher sentence can seek to overturn that sentence on the grounds that his attorney was unconstitutionally deficient. Missouri v. Frye considered whether a criminal defendant whose lawyer failed to communicate a plea offer from the prosecution can successfully claim ineffective assistance of counsel if he is later convicted and sentenced more harshly under a less favorable plea agreement.
In Lafler v. Cooper, the Court vacated and remanded the judgment of the lower court, holding by a vote of 5-4 that a criminal defendant who (a) rejects a plea offer based on legal advice so deficient that it violates the Sixth Amendment, and (b) later is convicted at trial and receives a harsher sentence, can (c) seek reconsideration of his sentence if he can show a reasonable probability that, but for the ineffective assistance of counsel, (1) the plea agreement would have been presented to and accepted by the court, and (2) the subsequent conviction and sentence (or both) under that plea agreement would have been less severe than the judgment and sentence that were actually imposed. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justice Thomas in full and by the Chief Justice as to all except Part IV, and Justice Alito filed a separate dissenting opinion.
The Court likewise vacated and remanded the judgment of the lower court by a vote of 5-4 in Missouri v. Frye, holding that the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel in criminal cases includes the right to notice from one’s attorney of the terms of a plea offer from the prosecution. Failure to convey such terms to the defendant violates that right. To obtain relief, however, the defendant must still establish a reasonable probablility that, had he received effective assistance of counsel, (a) the defendant would have accepted the plea offer, (b) the resulting plea agreement would have been entered by the court, and (c) that agreement would have resulted in a plea to a lesser charge or a lighter sentence than was actually imposed. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas and Alito, filed a dissenting opinion.
To discuss the cases, we have Kent Scheidegger, who is the Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.