Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156 (Mar. 21, 2012)

The Court held that defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance by advising a defendant to reject a plea offer and it specified the appropriate remedy for the constitutional violation. The defendant was charged with assault with intent to murder, possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony, misdemeanor possession of marijuana, and being a habitual offender. The prosecution twice offered to dismiss two of the charges and to recommend a sentence of 51-85 months for the other two, in exchange for a guilty plea. The defendant rejected both offers, allegedly after his attorney convinced him that the prosecution would be unable to establish intent to murder. On the first day of trial the prosecution offered a significantly less favorable plea deal, which the defendant rejected. The defendant was convicted on all counts and received a mandatory minimum sentence of 185-360 months’ imprisonment. He then challenged the conviction, arguing that his attorney’s advice to reject the plea constituted ineffective assistance.

On appeal the parties agreed that counsel rendered deficient performance when he advised the defendant to reject the plea offer. Thus, the only issue before the Court was how to apply Strickland’s prejudice prong. The court held that when ineffective assistance results in a rejection of the plea offer and the defendant is convicted at the later trial

a defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice of counsel there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court (i.e., that the defendant would have accepted the plea and the prosecution would not have withdrawn it in light of intervening circumstances), that the court would have accepted its terms, and that the conviction or sentence, or both, under the offer’s terms would have been less severe than under the judgment and sentence that in fact were imposed.

            The Court then addressed the issue of the appropriate remedy, noting that the injury suffered by defendants who decline a plea offer as a result of ineffectiveness and then receive a greater sentence at a trial can come in at least one of two forms. Sometimes, the Court explained, the sole advantage a defendant would have received under the plea is a lesser sentence. In this situation, the trial court may conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendant has shown a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s errors he or she would have accepted the plea. “If the showing is made,” the Court elaborated, “the court may exercise discretion in determining whether the defendant should receive the term of imprisonment the government offered in the plea, the sentence he received at trial, or something in between.” In some situations, however, the Court noted “resentencing alone will not be full redress for the constitutional injury,” such as when an offer was for a guilty plea to a less serious crime than the one the defendant ends up getting convicted for at trial, or if a mandatory sentence limits a judge’s sentencing discretion. In these situations, the Court explained, “the proper exercise of discretion to remedy the constitutional injury may be to require the prosecution to reoffer the plea proposal. Once this has occurred, the judge can then exercise discretion in deciding whether to vacate the conviction from trial and accept the plea or leave the conviction undisturbed.” The Court noted that when implementing a remedy in both situations, the trial court must weigh various factors. Although it determined that the “boundaries of proper discretion need not be defined here” the Court noted two relevant considerations:

First, a court may take account of a defendant’s earlier expressed willingness, or unwillingness, to accept responsibility for his or her actions.  Second, it is not necessary here to decide as a constitutional rule that a judge is required to prescind (that is to say disregard) any information concerning the crime that was discovered after the plea offer was made.  The time continuum makes it difficult to restore the defendant and the prosecution to the precise positions they occupied prior to the rejection of the plea offer, but that baseline can be consulted in finding a remedy that does not require the prosecution to incur the expense of conducting a new trial.

Applying the relevant test to the case at hand, the Court found that the defendant met Strickland’s two-part test for ineffective assistance. The fact of deficient performance had been conceded and the defendant showed that but for counsel’s deficient performance there is a reasonable probability that both he and the trial court would have accepted the guilty plea. Additionally, as a result of not accepting the plea and being convicted at trial, respondent received a minimum sentence 3½ times greater than he would have received under the plea. The Court found that the correct remedy is to order the State to reoffer the plea agreement. It continued: “Presuming [the defendant] accepts the offer, the state trial court can then exercise its discretion in determining whether to vacate the convictions and resentence respondent pursuant to the plea agreement, to vacate only some of the convictions and resentence respondent accordingly, or to leave the convictions and sentence from trial undisturbed.”