Supreme Court Plea Offer Ruling

As any experienced Texas 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 Sixth 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 disposition. It remains to be seen if this “flood of claims regarding the violation of plea bargain rights” will actually manifest.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.