When 95% of criminal cases are resolved in conference rooms, over the phone, and via email between prosecutors and defense lawyers, it is vital that the lawyer be competent and effective. For the first time in our country's history, yesterday the United States Supreme Court extended this 6th Amendment protection to the plea bargaining process.
Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to effective lawyers during plea negotiations, the Court ruled on March 21, 2012 in a pair of 5-to-4 decisions that vastly expanded judges’ supervision of the criminal justice system.
When bad legal advice leads to defendants rejecting favorable plea offers is now subject to new constraints.
“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” said the Court's author, Justice Kennedy. “The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining takes in securing convictions and determining sentences.”
The New York Times said, "claims of ineffective assistance at trial are commonplace even though trials take place under a judge’s watchful eye. Challenges to plea agreements based on misconduct by defense lawyers will presumably be common as well, given how many more convictions follow guilty pleas and the fluid nature of plea negotiations."
Now we have a new question in criminal law. What is to be done in cases in which a lawyer’s incompetence caused the client to reject a favorable plea bargain?
It appears as though this isn't as easy as rejecting a deal, going to trial, and if you lose appealing on "ineffective assistance". The defendant has to try and prove that he would have accepted the original offer as well as demonstrate that prosecutors would not have later withdrawn the offer had he accepted it and then prove that the judge would have accepted it. That's a huge uphill battle.
So what is the best practice for defense lawyers and their clients? In my opinion, all offers should be written down, signed by counsel, signed by the accused, discussed on the record and if the defendant is rejecting it prior to trial, that the judge have some meaningful dialogue with the defendant.