Justices to Resolve Circuit Split Over Appeal Waivers

(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to resolve a split amount the circuit courts on the question of when an inmate has a right to file an appeal of his conviction despite the fact his plea agreement specifically waives that right.

The case comes to the court from Idaho, where in early 2015 petitioner Gilberto Garza Jr. entered an Alford plea to aggravated assault and a guilty plea to possession of a controlled substance. (An Alford plea is a guilty plea in which the defendant maintains his innocence of a crime, but nevertheless concedes prosecutors have enough evidence to prove he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.)

Both plea agreements included a provision specifying that Garza waited his right to appeal.

At a joint sentencing hearing, the district court accepted both plea agreements, acknowledged the appeal waiver, but went on to advise Garza of his right to appeal and his right to be appointed counsel if he did so.

Later, Garza filed a pro se petition for postconviction relief, asserting he repeatedly instructed his trial counsel to file a notice of appeal on his behalf, but that the lawyer failed to do so. He said this failure was proof he received ineffective counsel in his case.

Garza’s attorney acknowledged he declined to file an appeal on his client’s behalf, but said he explained that the waiver the inmate had agreed to made an appeal problematic.

For its part, the government said if Garza still wanted to press his case, he was required to show actual prejudice from the loss of a chance to appeal his case.

Every federal circuit has weighed in on the issue presented in the case. In doing so, eight circuits have adopted the “presumption of prejudice” set forth by the Supreme Court in the 2000 case Roe v. Flores-Ortega, but two circuits have deferred, requiring a showing of actual prejudice.

The district court adopted the view of the minority of circuits and denied Garza’s appeal, although it noted there is a split among the circuits that the Supreme Court had not resolved. The Idaho Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court later affirmed the ruling.

In a petition for a writ of certiorari filed on Garza’s behalf, Amir Ali of the Roderick & Solance and the MaCarthur Justice Center in Washington, D.C., says these decisions were “wrong and troubling.”

“While a plea waiver may substantially limit the scope of issues available to a defendant if he chooses to appeal, even the broadest waiver leaves open a number of significant issues, including those going to voluntariness or competence to enter the plea, ineffective assistance of counsel during the plea process, and the legality of the sentence imposed,” Ali write. “Where trial counsel refuses a criminal defendant’s instruction to file a notice of appeal, counsel thus deprives the defendant of a counseled direct appeal on these issues “altogether.”

As is their custom, the justices did not explained their rational for taking up the case on Monday.

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