The Supreme Court recently decided two cases about what a lawyer has to do when representing a client deciding whether to take a guilty plea or go to trial - Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye.
These cases hold, basically, that if a defense lawyer messes up when representing a person in connection with a decision to plead guilty, that violates the person's constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. As a result, the harm that was done by the lawyer's mistake can, and must, be undone. So, a person who was hurt by a lawyer's mistake can challenge what happened to him and possibly have a conviction or sentence undone.
The New York Times took the notable step of issuing an editorial praising the decisions. Lots of folks have commented on the effects of the rulings (like this guest post at Sentencing Law and Policy).
Lafler, I think, will prove the more interesting case. It definitely has the more interesting facts.
Mr. Cooper's Lawyer's Folly
In Lafler, Mr. Cooper, was charged with assault with intent to murder. The person Mr. Cooper stood accused of assaulting was shot in the lower half of his body.
The government offered Mr. Cooper a plea to lesser charges that would have resulted in a sentence of 51 to 85 months in prison. Mr. Cooper rebuffed these offers based on his lawyer's advice that a person cannot be found guilty of assault with intent to murder if the person is aiming at the lower half of the victim's body.
This singularly bizarre bit of legal "advice" was not accurate - just like it isn't accurate that the police can't arrest a husband and a wife for the same crime.
Yet, Mr. Cooper relied on his lawyer's erroneous "no murder if you're shooting below the waist" maxim and went to trial. He was convicted, and sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 185 to 360 months.
The Supreme Court held that, on these facts, Mr. Cooper was not competently represented by counsel. As a result, in the future, people who went to trial based on a bad assessment of what will happen at trial have a tenable claim of ineffective assistance.
Will The Floodgates Open?
The dissent said that this is going to open a floodgate of litigation, as people who are in prison try to use Lafler (and Frye) to overturn their sentences.
So, I'm trying to think about who will most benefit from this opinion.
I think, most clearly, it would be people who went to trial, when there was a viable plea offer for less time than the person received, and where the person received a significant sentence after trial.
The Court quoted a lovely law review article about the perils of going to trial in this age of plea-bargaining:
The expected post-trial sentence is imposed in only a few percent of cases. It is like the sticker price for cars: only an ignorant, ill-advised consumer would view full price as the norm and anything less a bargain
So, as I read Lafler, a lawyer has an obligation to meaningfully and competently discuss whether to take it. As the Court says,
If a plea bargain has been offered, a defendant has the right to effective assistance of counsel in considering whether to accept it. If that right is denied, prejudice can be shown if loss of the plea opportunity led to a trial resulting in a conviction on more serious charges or the imposition of a more severe sentence.
I think this means that a lawyer advising a person looking at trial or a plea has to tell him, competently, what the strengths and weaknesses of his case, and the government's case, are.
Obviously, there can be some room to wiggle there - if a lawyer says that there's a 35% chance of conviction, when, in fact, there's a 38% chance (assuming anything in a trial could ever be known with such precision), it would be hard to see how that kind of error would require a reversal.
But there's a lot of room to move in a challenge to a person's conviction.
What if, for example, a person's lawyer simply didn't anticipate that a bit of evidence would be significant? The government had, say, an email that was particularly damning. When discussing a plea, the person's lawyer simply didn't mention the effect that this email could have on a jury. It seems that could be close enough to the "no murder if you're shooting below the waist" rule to be worth a challenge.
Who Gets More Serious Sentences After Trial Than On A Plea?
Lafler will confer the most benefit to people who faced the most significant trial penalty.
Thinking just of federal cases, I'm sure there are a lot of candidates for this kind of relief - people who are now facing mandatory minimum sentences that could have been pled around, or enhanced sentences based on prior convictions that wouldn't have been triggered on a plea - but I think one interesting area will be white-collar offenses.
Since Enron, there have been a lot of white-collar prosecutions. And, since the guidelines get crazy when the loss amounts get high, I would think virtually any white-collar case where a person was sentenced near the sentencing guidelines after trial, and where there was a plea offered before trial, would be worth thinking about as a candidate for relief under Lafler.
One additional interesting thing about white-collar cases is that they tend to be the kinds of cases where honest conversations about plea options happen less frequently.
In the average drug case in federal court, there is a frank conversation about whether to plead. Either the client (or his family) is bearing the costs of the representation, or the lawyer is court-appointed. In either case, the economic incentives line up to encourage that conversation.
In white-collar cases where the person accused of the crime is indemnified, the incentives are different. The client isn't paying for his legal fees, and the law firm has an interest in seeing the case go to trial. A frank conversation about whether trial can be won or lost, or whether an acceptable plea can be secured, can be challenging.
Of course, maybe I'm wrong about that. As these convictions get challenged under Lafler, the plea advice that lawyers have been giving, and their advice about what's going to happen at trial, will be getting new scrutiny.
I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out.