Daily Archives: March 21, 2012

To plead or not to plead: a critical question

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

So muses Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. So goes the quandary faced by criminal defendants in today’s criminal justice system: to plead or not to plead? Is it more advisable to suffer the ignominy of a conviction and lesser jail time up front than to press the sword of trial and hope that it doesn’t turn on you, often to more deleterious effect?

Hamlet had no one to guide him honestly; the modern criminal defendant, however, does: his lawyer. And it is upon this lawyer that he relies for a frank and learned assessment of the pros and cons of the various options available to him. To argue that the decision to plead guilty or to reject an offer is not a “critical stage” of the criminal process is to disingenuously ignore the realities of this modern day system.

And yet this is precisely what agents of the various States have been arguing for many years. This is a nonsensical fight that I personally have fought for at least 5 years now, without any direct guidance from the United States Supreme Court. Until yesterday.

In two sure to be seminal cases, Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye [both PDF], the Supreme Court unequivocally held that the right to counsel at all “critical stages” of a criminal proceeding means the right to effective assistance of counsel at those stages and yes, Dorothy, the plea bargain is a “critical stage”.

The argument for this holding is best explained by stating the position of those against it. The position against is this: so long as a defendant receives a fair trial, it is irrelevant whether – and to what extent – his lawyer erred in the time leading up to that trial. Reductio ad absurdum, to these folks, if a lawyer never speaks to his client prior to the trial and conveys no offer, it doesn’t matter, because the right to effective assistance of counsel only has force in the context of a criminal trial.

To a less absurd degree, take the case of Lafler, whose lawyer told him that he should reject a very favorable pre-trial offer and instead make the State prove its case because there was no way he could legally be convicted of attempted murder, since the victim was shot in the leg.

You don’t need 3 years of law school and a passed bar exam to tell you that’s just wrong. Stupid, wrong and dangerous. But the States would have you believe that it is of no moment that such patently faulty advice was given, because Lafler received a fair trial.

Justice Kennedy, writing for both majorities, explains it well:

The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities in the plea bargain process, responsibilities that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires in the criminal process at critical stages. Because ours “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Lafler, post, at 11, it is insufficient simply to point to the guarantee of a fair trial as a backstop that inoculates any errors in the pretrial process.  “To a large extent . . . horse trading [between prosecutor  and defense counsel] determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is.  It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system;  it is the criminal justice system.”

While the significant role of plea bargaining cannot be diminished (also why ideas like taking every case to trial are stupid and unethical), I would argue that the right to effective assistance pre-trial is not a product of only that large impact of the plea process. It is also a matter of simple logic and ethical responsibility. As I’ve long argued, we are our clients’ shepherds through this complicated quagmire that we call the criminal justice system. The layman, untrained in the nuances of this system, look to us to proffer advice and most often follow our advice. How would you feel if you were given bad advice by the person whose only responsibility was to give you good advice?

Simply put, the issue boils down to this: if you have a right to have a lawyer give you advice, then you have a right to have that lawyer give you competent advice.

This is an outcome that everyone involved – judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys – should be cheering, because it ensures that the system is fair. That is not to say that all advice given by counsel that a defendant doesn’t like is per se ineffective, as some folks1 would have you believe. Rather that a court should evaluate that advice to determine whether it was sound. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, the advice will be deemed so. But there will also be cases where, but for the misadvice of counsel, the defendant would have not been worse off.

The problem with these opinions lies – as it often does – with the remedy. Here is where I part ways with Justice Kennedy. He writes, in the context of a sentence after a jury trial and a rejected plea agreement:

The specific injury suffered by defendants who decline a plea offer as a result of ineffective assistance of counsel and then receive a greater sentence as a result of trial can come in at least one of two forms.  In some cases, the sole advantage a defendant would have received under the plea is a lesser sentence.  This is typically the case when the charges that would have been admitted as part of the plea bargain are the same as the charges the defendant was convicted of after trial.  In this situation the court may conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendant has shown a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s errors he would have accepted the plea.  If the showing is made, the court may exercise discretion in determining whether the defendant should receive the term of imprisonment the government offered in the plea, the sentence he received at trial, or something in between.

This proposed model of determining remedy is fundamentally unsound. The general underlying principle is – and should be – that the defendant, when disadvantaged by the Constitutional violation, should be placed back in the position he was in before the violation so disadvantaged him. See, e.g., Santobello v. New York. To suggest that an appropriate remedy for this Constitutional violation could be the same sentence he received as a result of this violation is incongruent and incomprehensible. In my mind, the only appropriate remedy2 is the first one: if the defendant can establish that the plea was rejected as a result of ineffective assistance and the plea would have been accepted by the judge, the only way to make the defendant whole is to sentence him to the terms of that plea. Anything else would be a band-aid on a gaping wound.

Finally, there will always be naysayers even among the defense bar. To them, I repeat words I wrote just under two years ago:

Ineffective assistance of counsel is a sort of “dirty” phrase in the criminal defense world. It is viewed by many as a personal attack and is met with scorn, anger and derision directed toward those who practice in the post-conviction arena. That this view is prevalent among the bar is alarming. It belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the duties and responsibilities of the defense lawyer in the criminal justice system.

IAC claims are not a taint on your reputation nor is it an indictment of your abilities. It is a recognition of the simple fact that we are all working within a juggernaut of a system that from time to time overwhelms even the best of us.  At the end of the day, it is you and I who go home to our comfortable beds. You and I have the ability to walk outside in the free world and to buy what we choose and talk to whom we want, whenever we want. To place our petty egos and some twisted sense of self-worth before the complaints of the convicted client, who has nothing but a badly beaten and bruised writ to use to seek his release from the oppressive conditions of confinement in our penal institutions is pettiness of the ugliest kind.

This may be getting repetitive, but it cannot be said enough that in order to truly serve our clients we must view ourselves as nothing but an extension of the individual client. We must be the client, at every moment that we represent them. We – criminal defense lawyers – are not parties to a criminal case. The client is. We are his representative. We must, at all times, remember that and act like it.




1. The analogy given by the good folks at C&C is, simply put, stupid and inapposite. This is not a situation where “you offer to buy my car for $10,000.  After consulting with my expert, I reject the offer.  Turns out my expert gave me bad advice.  The next week, I want to go through with the deal.  In the meantime, though, I have wrecked the car.  Would it be fair to make you pay me $10,000 for the now-wrecked car?” The expert has no duty to give me advice and my “wrecking the car” is not analogous to going to trial with that expert as my advocate.

2. The same good folks at C&C suggest that the appropriate remedy should be that “the defense lawyer should be personally liable for the cost of the trial.  If the defense was the public defender’s office, the cost of prosecution should be transferred from the public defender’s budget to the district attorney’s budget.” If it wasn’t clear prior to today that the good folks at C&C were only concerned with obtaining convictions and watching people murdered by the State, it should be now. Such a rigid, simplistic view of the by-its-nature murky and unclear business of assigning guilt does a disservice to everyone.