The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants effective assistance of counsel. This right to assistance of counsel has long been understood to include not only the trial itself, but also other “critical” stages of the proceedings. The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the plea bargaining phase also entails a right to effective assistance of counsel. The plea negotiations are indeed a “critical” stage of a criminal proceeding.
This Supreme Court considered two companion cases for this issue. In one case, a criminal suspect was never even informed that the prosecutors offered a plea agreement that would have resulted in a three-month sentence. Ignorant of the plea agreement, the suspect pled guilty to the original charges, resulting in a three year sentence. In response to this, the court held, “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.” That case will now be sent back to a lower court to determine whether the prosecution would have followed through with their offer.
In the other case, a man was charged with a number of charges, including assault with intent to murder. The prosecutors in the case said that they would drop some of the charges in exchange for a guilty plea on the others while recommending a seven year sentence. But the counsel for the suspect told him to reject the deal. He incorrectly informed the suspect that prosecutors could not show intent to murder because he shot the woman below the waist. The suspect was eventfully sentenced to 30 years in prison. The court said the suspect should have another opportunity to accept the deal.
This ruling is an acknowledgement of the reality of our criminal justice system. The vast majority of criminal convictions at both the state and federal level are the result of guilty pleas. Many of these are the result of a plea bargain. Because the plea bargaining phase is where much of the action in the criminal justice system takes place, it makes sense that the Constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel must apply to this phase.
Source: The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Court: Lawyers must adequately help on plea deals,” Jesse Holland, March 21, 2012