Should the right to effective assistance apply to plea bargains?

In criminal cases, a defense attorney’s performance can make the difference between a positive and negative outcome for a defendant. Because of this, defendants have the constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel. Now, the Supreme Court is considering two cases that focus on whether this constitutional right applies during plea agreements.

People facing criminal charges in Georgia and all across America quite often go through a stressful plea bargaining process, in which a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a criminal charge on agreed upon terms. Tragically, some go through the plea bargaining process without adequate legal representation. Recently, the American Bar Association (ABA) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to find that a defendant should have the right to effective assistance of counsel at the critical plea bargaining stage.

The ABA stressed the fact that nearly 95 percent of criminal convictions result from guilty pleas, which demonstrates the necessity for having competent counsel for people making the crucial decision on whether to plead guilty.

Presently, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering two cases involving defendants who allegedly received poor advice that actually resulted in their turning down good plea bargains. One case involves a lawyer who misunderstood state law, and the other case involves a lawyer who didn’t tell the defendant about a misdemeanor offer that could have saved him from a felony guilty plea.

When ineffective counsel results in the loss of an advantageous plea, the ABA suggests that one remedy might be to vacate the conviction and let the government bring a new prosecution. Another option might be to let the disadvantaged defendant have the benefit of the offer that was lost.

Source: ABA Journal, “ABA Urges Supreme Court to Find a Right to Effective Assistance in Plea Bargains,” Debra Cassens Weiss, 27 July 2011