The Supreme Court’s Huge Ruling Regarding Plea Bargains

In what’s being called the biggest decision from the Supreme Court in decades, the justices ruled this past week that criminal defendants are entitled to effective assistance of counsel during the plea bargaining stages of a case. The right to effective assistance already exists at trial, but the fact is few cases ever go to trial in the current criminal justice system.

Plea bargains are where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a crime in exchange for a potentially more lenient sentence. They happen all the time, every day in criminal courts across this nation. But until now, they’ve been largely unregulated and informal.

Now, however, after the 5-4 decision from the High Court, judges will have expanded supervision into the plea bargaining process.

Defendants often complain of ineffective assistance from their attorneys at trial. And because plea bargains are used so much more often than trials, it’s expected complaints for ineffective assistance during pleas will be more prevalent.

Admitting they may be opening up a can of worms, the justices had to err on the side of constitutional protections and due process. The majority opinion, “acknowledged that allowing the possibility of do-overs in cases involving foregone pleas followed by convictions presented all sorts of knotty problems. But he said the realities of American criminal justice required the court to take action.”

When you enter into a plea agreement, you look to your attorney for advice on whether it is a good solution or if you should go forward to trial. In most cases a plea agreement is taken. As a matter of fact, 97% of federal cases end in pleas while 94% of state cases end in the same manner.

Now, if you can prove you got bad advice from your attorney, for instance if you forgo the plea and proceed to trial only to get convicted, you can challenge your conviction on the basis of the bad advice.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority on this case, teaming up with four more liberal justices. In the opinion, he wrote, “plea bargaining is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system…longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes.”

The case centered on a man who was charged with driving without a license. He was offered a plea agreement, which would have given him a 90-day sentence. His attorney failed to tell him about the plea offer, so he went to trial, was convicted and sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Whether you are charged with driving without a license or something far more serious, you want to know that the person you have on your side will keep you informed of all your options. Let us put you in touch with a local criminal defense attorney today.

About David Matson