Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 133 (Mar. 21, 2012)

The Court held that a defense lawyer rendered ineffective assistance by allowing a plea offer by the prosecution to expire without advising the defendant of the offer or allowing him to consider it. The defendant was charged with felony driving with a revoked license, an offense carrying a maximum term of imprisonment of four years. On November 15, the prosecutor sent a letter to defense counsel offering a choice of two plea bargains. First, the prosecutor offered to recommend a 3-year sentence for a guilty plea to the felony charge, without a recommendation regarding probation but with a recommendation for 10 days in jail as so called “shock” time. Second, to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor and, if the defendant pleaded guilty, to recommend a 90-day sentence. The misdemeanor charge would have carried a maximum term of imprisonment of one year. The letter stated both that offers would expire on December 28. The defendant’s attorney did not tell the defendant of the offers and they expired. Before this charge was resolved, the defendant was again arrested for driving with a revoked license. The defendant subsequently plead guilty to the initial charge. There was no plea agreement. The trial court accepted the guilty plea and sentenced the defendant to three years in prison. The defendant challenged his conviction, arguing that counsel’s failure to inform him of the plea offer constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

            The Court began its analysis by concluding that the constitutional right to counsel extends to the negotiation and consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected. It stated: “In today’s criminal justice system . . . the negotiation of a plea bargain . . . is almost always the critical point for a defendant.” Having determined that there is a right to effective assistance with respect to plea offers, the Court turned to the question of whether defense counsel has the duty to communicate the terms of a formal offer to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may result in a lesser sentence, a conviction on lesser charges, or both. On this issue it held:

[A]s a general rule, defense counsel has the duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused. Any exceptions to that rule need not be explored here, for the offer was a formal one with a fixed expiration date. When defense counsel allowed the offer to expire without advising the defendant or allowing him to consider it, defense counsel did not render the effective assistance the Constitution requires.

The Court then turned to the issue of prejudice and laid out the following standards:

To show prejudice from ineffective assistance of counsel where a plea offer has lapsed or been rejected because of counsel’s deficient performance, defendants must demonstrate a reasonable probability they would have accepted the earlier plea offer had they been afforded effective assistance of counsel. Defendants must also demonstrate a reasonable probability the plea would have been entered without the prosecution canceling it or the trial court refusing to accept it, if they had the authority to exercise that discretion under state law.  To establish prejudice in this instance, it is necessary to show a reasonable probability that the end result of the criminal process would have been more favorable by reason of a plea to a lesser charge or a sentence of less prison time. 

Applying these standards to the case before it, the Court concluded that because defense counsel made no meaningful attempt to inform the defendant of the written plea offer, counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. As to prejudice, the Court found that the state court applied the wrong standard. Specifically, it did not require the defendant to show that the first plea offer, if accepted, would have been adhered to by the prosecution and accepted by the trial court, particularly given the defendant’s subsequent arrest for the same offense. The Court remanded on this issue.