Russell Hebets March 22, 2012

This week the United States Supreme Court issued a pair of landmark rulings for criminal cases related to plea bargains. To understand the full magnitude of this decision it is important to remember that up to 97% of cases in criminal court are settled with a plea bargain.

In Lafler v. Cooper, the Supreme Court heard a case where a person was offered a plea bargain in a murder case. That person’s attorney incorrectly informed them that they could not be convicted of murder because the shots that were fired were all below the waist. The defendant appealed their conviction saying that their attorney had provided them ineffective counsel, since this legal advice was bogus. The Supreme Court said that it was acceptable to appeal a conviction when a defendant rejects a plea bargain because of ineffective counsel. The remedy is for the defendant to either receive a reduced sentence or, as will probably happen in most cases, be allowed to accept the original plea bargain and vacate the conviction at trial.

There are three primary things the defendant must prove in order to make these types of appeals. First, the defendant must show that they would have accepted the original plea bargain if they had not received ineffective legal advice. Second, the defendant must prove that the original plea agreement is better than the outcome of the trial that occurred. Third, the defendant must prove that the prosecutor and judge would have accepted the original plea agreement before trial.

These court rulings may create many changes in the criminal justice system. In the short term there may be a spike in these types of appeals. Additionally, Justice Kennedy recommended that all plea agreements be made in writing or on the court record. As prosecutors integrate these decisions they may change the procedure for rejecting a plea agreement so that their trials are not overturned.