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United States Supreme Court Rules Criminal Defendants Entitled To Competent Legal Representation In Plea Bargaining

Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court issued a pair of decision holding that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to effective legal representation during plea negotiations. In Missouri v. Frye, No. 10-444, and Lafler v. Cooper, No. 10-209, the Court voted 5-4 to establish a mechanism by which a criminal defendant could challenge a conviction resulting from a jury trial in cases where the defendant had previously rejected favorable plea offers based on poor legal advice from an attorney.

In Frye, the defendant, Galin E. Frye, charged with driving without a license, was offered a deal allowing him to plead guilty in exchange for a 90-day sentence. Frye's attorney failed to inform him of the offer, and, following the deal's expiration date, advised Frye to plead guilty without the benefit of the lapsed bargain. Frye was sentenced to three years in prison. Later, a state appeals court reversed his conviction, stating, however, that it did not have the power to order the state to reduce the charges, essentially leaving Frye where he had started, with options of going to trial or pleading guilty without a plea deal.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy opined that Frye should be allowed to retroactively accept the agreement. In order to do so, however, Frye would have to prove that he would have accepted the offer, that the prosecutor would not have later withdrawn the offer, and that the sentencing court would have accepted the agreement.

In Cooper, the defendant, Anthony Cooper, charged with shooting a woman in Detroit, was advised incorrectly by his attorney that, because all four of the bullets had struck the victim below her waist, Cooper could not be convicted of assault with intent to murder. Based on the erroneous advice, Cooper rejected a plea bargain wherein he could have received a sentence of four to seven years. Following a jury trial, Cooper was convicted of the original charges and sentenced to 15 to 30 years.

Again writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated, "The favorable sentence that eluded the defendant in the criminal proceeding appears to be the sentence he or others in his position would have received in the ordinary course, absent the failings of counsel."

Writing in one of two dissents, Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, maintained that allowing Cooper to accept the original plea offer was "a remedy unheard of in American jurisprudence." Scalia continued, "I suspect that the court's squeamishness in fashioning a remedy, and the incoherence of what it comes up with, is attributable to its realization, deep down, that there is no real constitutional violation here anyway. The defendant has been fairly tried, lawfully convicted and properly sentenced, and any 'remedy' provided for this will do nothing but undo the just results of a fair adversarial process."

All criminal defendants are entitled to competent legal representation, a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution. The attorneys of DiCaudo, Pitchford & Yoder have extensive experience protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. If you have been charged with a crime in Ohio or have questions regarding your rights, contact an experienced Akron criminal defense attorney from DiCaudo, Pitchford & Yoder today.

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