(CN) – The Supreme Court on Wednesday vacated the special consideration shown to two criminal defendants who received harsh sentences after allegedly poor legal advice caused them to turn down more favorable plea deals.
Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the majority opinions in each case.
The first case concerns Galin Frye, whom Michigan authorities charged with driving on a revoked license in 2007. The maximum sentence for the class D felony with which he was charged is four years in prison.
Though the prosecutor sent Frye’s lawyer two plea deals, the attorney never shared the offers with Frye and the deals expired. With a week to go before trial, on Dec. 30, 2007, Frye was arrested again for the same offense. After pleading guilty to the original charges, the trial judge sentenced him to three years in prison.
Under the original offer, however, Frye could have pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and served 90 days.
Frye testified in postconviction hearing that he would have pleaded to the misdemeanor if he knew about the offer, but the court denied his claim of ineffective counsel. The Missouri Court of Appeals was more sympathetic, however, and withdrew Frye’s guilty plea. It ordered the trial court to let Frye go to trial or plead guilty to any offense at the prosecutor’s discretion.
Blaine Lafler also lost out on a more favorable plea deal in Michigan, but he rejected it on his attorney’s advice. Lafler was facing a mandatory-minimum sentence of 15 to 30 years in prison for weapon and drug charges, as well as intent to murder.
The prosecutors twice offered to dismiss two charges and recommend a maximum sentence of seven years.
Though Lafler admitted guilt in communication with the court, and indicated that he wanted to plead down, his attorney allegedly convinced him to turn down the offer. After his conviction, the court sentenced Lafler to the mandatory minimum.
Lafler exhausted his postconviction relief options in state court but fared better in U.S. District Court. A federal judge ordered specific performance of the original deal, for a minimum sentence of 51 to 85 months. The 6th Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 Tuesday to vacate both Frye and Lafler’s appellate successes.
Though it was deficient for Frye’s attorney to shield the formal plea offer from his client, Frye has not shown prejudice from the breach of duty, according to the court.
“A defendant in Frye’s position must show not only a reasonable probability that he would have accepted the lapsed plea but also a reasonable probability that the prosecution would have adhered to the agreement and that it would have been accepted by the trial court,” Kennedy wrote. “Frye can show he would have accepted the offer, but there is strong reason to doubt the prosecution and the trial court would have permitted the plea bargain to become final.”
On remand, the Missouri Court of Appeals must consider if the prosecution would have adhered to the plea offer, and if the trial court would have accepted it.
“A state may choose to preclude the prosecution from withdrawing a plea offer once it has been accepted or perhaps to preclude a trial court from rejecting a plea bargain,” Kennedy wrote. “In Missouri, it appears ‘a plea offer once accepted by the defendant can be withdrawn without recourse’ by the prosecution. The extent of the trial court’s discretion in Missouri to reject a plea agreement appears to be in some doubt.”
“In this case, given Frye’s new offense for driving without a license on December 30, 2007, there is reason to doubt that the prosecution would have adhered to the agreement or that the trial court would have accepted it at the January 4, 2008, hearing, unless they were required by state law to do so,” he added.
The court also vacated Lafler’s appellate victory, it concluded that he had shown prejudice.
“The fact that respondent is guilty does not mean he was not entitled by the Sixth Amendment to effective assistance or that he suffered no prejudice from his attorney’s deficient performance during plea bargaining,” Kennedy wrote.
“In the end, petitioner’s three arguments amount to one general contention: A fair trial wipes clean any deficient performance by defense counsel during plea bargaining. That position ignores the reality that criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials. Ninety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas. As explained in Frye, the right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining plays in securing convictions and determining sentences.”
Lafler satisfied the standard for ineffective counsel, but the courts did not apply the right remedy, according to the court. Instead of ordering specific performance, the court should have ordered Michigan to reoffer the plea agreement.
A 13-page dissent to Lafler says that “the court opened a whole new field of constitutionalized criminal procedure: plea-bargaining law.”
“Even if it were not foreclosed, the constitutional right to effective plea-bargainers that it establishes is at least a new rule of law, which does not undermine the Michigan Court of Appeals’ decision and therefore cannot serve as the basis for habeas relief,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. “And the remedy the court announces – namely, whatever the state trial court in its discretion prescribes, down to and including no remedy at all – is unheard-of and quite absurd for violation of a constitutional right.”
Justice Clarence Thomas joined that dissent in full, but Chief Justice John Roberts joined all but the opinion’s fourth section.
In that section, Scalia remarks that the new precedent “elevates plea bargaining from a necessary evil to a constitutional entitlement.”
“I am less saddened by the outcome of this case than I am by what it says about this court’s attitude toward criminal justice,” Scalia wrote. “The court today embraces the sporting chance theory of criminal law, in which the state functions like a conscientious casino-operator, giving each player a fair chance to beat the house, that is, to serve less time than the law says he deserves. And when a player isexcluded from the tables, his constitutional rights have been violated. I do not subscribe to that theory. No one should, least of all the justices of the Supreme Court.”
Justice Samuel Alito penned a separate dissent in Lafler that echoes the first two parts of Scalia’s opinion.
“The lower court judges who must implement today’s holding may – and I hope, will – do so in a way that mitigates its potential to produce unjust results,” Alito wrote. “But I would not depend on these judges to come to the rescue. The court’s interpretation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is unsound, and I therefore respectfully dissent.”
The same four justices dissented in Frye, but they supported Alito’s opinion there in full.
“In this case and its companion, the court’s sledge may require the reversal of perfectly valid, eminently just, convictions,” Scalia wrote. “A legislature could solve the problems presented by these cases in a much more precise and efficient manner. It might begin, for example, by penalizing the attorneys who made such grievous errors. That type of subconstitutional remedy is not available to the court, which is limited to penalizing (almost) everyone else by reversing valid convictions or sentences.”