According to the Department of Justice, 94% of state convictions and 98% of federal convictions are the result of guilty pleas. A large number of these guilty pleas arise from plea bargains and negotiations between the prosecution and defendants. As such, plea negotiations have become a fundamental part of the criminal justice system in the U.S. Recognizing this, the U.S. Supreme Court has sought to expand Sixth Amendment rights to protect defendants in this crucial part of a criminal case.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the accused in all criminal trials the right to effective assistance of counsel. In March of this year, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Missouri v. Frye, which addressed the question of whether this constitutional right extends to plea offers that are rejected or lapse.
In Missouri v. Frye a defendant was charged with driving with a revoked license. Since he had three prior convictions of driving with a revoked license, the defendant was charged with a class D felony under Missouri law, which has a four-year maximum sentence. Before trial, the prosecutor wrote a letter to Defendant's counsel that contained two offers, one of which reduced the charge to a misdemeanor and recommended a 90-day sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. A misdemeanor charge in this case carries a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail. The letter stated an expiration date for the offers. The offers expired and Defendant claims that his attorney did not inform him of either offer.
The Defendant was then arrested once again for driving with a revoked license less than a week before his preliminary hearing on the previous charge. The Defendant then waived his right to a preliminary hearing on the previous charge and subsequently pleaded guilty at arraignment without an underlying plea agreement. He was sentenced to three years in jail. Seeking post conviction relief, the Defendant alleged that he was denied effective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to inform him of the expired plea offer.
The Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel applies to all "critical stages" in a criminal proceeding. The Supreme Court has held that critical stages include arraignment, post indictment line-ups, post indictment interrogation, and entering a plea of guilty. The Court held that defense attorneys have a duty to communicate plea offers from the prosecution under the Sixth Amendment.
However, the defendant must prove that prejudice resulted from this failure to communicate the plea offer for it to rise to the level of a constitutional violation. To show prejudice in cases like this, the Court set out a new two-part test. To prove prejudice the defendant must demonstrate a reasonable probability that (1) he or she would have taken the offer had it been communicated, and (2) the prosecution would not have canceled the plea or the court would have rejected it, if they have the power to do so.
In this case, the defendant showed a reasonable probability that he would have taken the plea because he pled guilty to a charge that carried a longer sentence. However, in light of his arrest for the same crime less than a week before his preliminary hearing, the Supreme Court held that he did not show a reasonable probability that the prosecution would not have canceled the plea or that the court would not have rejected it.
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