Effective Assistance of Counsel and Plea Bargaining

March 22, 2012 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

In a pair of cases decided on March 21, 2012, the United States Supreme Court addressed the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel as it applies to plea negotiations. In addition to describing the proof necessary to establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel relating to plea proceedings, the Court made some notable (although not surprising) observations about the importance of plea bargaining in the criminal justice system.

First, in Missouri v. Frye, the Court explained that “[n]inety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas.” Thus, “[i]n today’s criminal justice system . . . the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.” Because guilty pleas are “so central to today’s criminal justice system . . ., defense counsel must meet responsibilities in the plea bargain process to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires at critical stages of the criminal process.”

The Court then went on to hold that “[a]s a general rule, defense counsel has the duty to communicate formal prosecution offers to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused.” If an attorney fails to do so and the plea offer expires or is rejected, a defendant can show prejudice (and establish a Sixth Amendment claim) by demonstrating “a reasonable probability both that they would have accepted the more favorable plea offer had they been afforded effective assistance of counsel and that the plea would have been entered without the prosecution’s canceling it or the trial court’s refusing to accept it.”

Next, in Lafler v. Cooper, the Court addressed the burden for a defendant who is convicted after trial but had rejected a plea offer based on objectively bad advice from counsel. To establish a Sixth Amendment violation, the defendant must prove a reasonable probability that the plea would have been accepted and the sentence would have been less severe than that which was actually imposed.

New Trial Ordered Where District Court Forced Defendant to Represent Himself

April 16, 2010 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

In United States v. Venable, 2010 WL 1474348 (4th Cir. April 14, 2010), the Fourth Circuit ordered a new trial because the district court forced the defendant to proceed pro se, even though the defendant did not waive his right to counsel – or wish to do so.

After being indicted, Venable had counsel appointed under the Criminal Justice Act.  However, during the first few weeks of the case Venable was not happy with that attorney and asked the district court to appoint new counsel.  The district court refused, ordering Venable to proceed pro se and directing the CJA attorney to act as standby counsel.  Throughout the case, Venable inststed that he had never wished to act as his own counsel.  After a trial during which “Venable constantly expressed his confusion,” he was found guilty and sentenced to sixty months’ imprisonment.

“Although a defendant may waive his right to counsel, the courts entertain every reasonable presumption against the waiver of this fundamental constitutional right.” United States v. Johnson, 659 F.2d 415, 416 (4th Cir. 1981).  With respect to Venable, the Fourth Circuit found that “[n]othing in the record could be construed as a voluntary waiver,” and that “[e]ven if he had expressed a desire to represent himself, such waiver would not have been knowingly and intelligently made because the court failed to inform [him] of his options or conduct any inquiry” into the waiver.  As such, the district court “violated Venable’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel in forcing him to proceed pro se in the absence of a valid waiver.”

Appellate Counsel’s Failure to Raise a Meritorious Claim Leads to Habeas Relief

April 6, 2010 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

In Ramchair v. Conway, 08-2004-pr (2d Cir. April 2, 2010), the Second Circuit found that appellate counsel’s failure to raise a claim that the trial court erred in denying a motion for a mistrial rose to the level of constitutional ineffectiveness, and that the New York Court of Appeals’ decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent.

The Second Circuit noted that evidence adduced in the district court (in the form of testimony from appellate counsel) established that the failure to raise the claim was not a strategic decision, but based on a mistaken belief that the claim had not been preserved.  Because the arguments raised by appellate counsel were “extremely weak” while the one omitted was “particularly strong,” the representation fell below the standards of reasonably competent performance.