Legal Competence Involving Plea Deals – On Trial With the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court recently heard two cases concerning ineffective legal assistance.   Both cases involved a lack of attorney competence while acting on behalf of their clients in negotiating plea deals.  The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, clearly sent a message that attorneys are required to be competent during all interactions on behalf of their clients, not just during trial.  This is especially important given the current reality of our legal system. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, “[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.”  This is evidenced by the fact that 97% of convictions in federal cases and 94% of the convictions in state cases, are the result of plea bargains.

In the first case, Missouri v. Frye, Galin Frye, was charged with driving without a license in 2007. A prosecutor offered in exchange for a guilty plea, Fyre would receive a 90-day sentence. However, Mr. Frye’s lawyer failed to tell his client of the offer. The offer expired, and Mr. Frye pleaded guilty without a plea bargain, and was sentenced to three years. (A state appeals court reversed his conviction but that only left Frye roughly where he started, having to decide whether to again proceed to trial or plead guilty without the benefit of a plea deal.


The second case, Lafler v. Cooper, concerned Anthony Cooper, who shot a woman in Detroit in 2003.  His attorney incorrectly told him that because all four of the bullets that had struck the victim were below her waist, that he could not be convicted of assault with intent to murder. This advice led Cooper to reject a plea bargain that called for a sentence of four to seven years. He was later convicted, and is now serving 15 to 30 years.


Commentators disagree as to whether these decisions have actually expanded rights, and whether these decisions will lead to increased claims of ineffective legal counsel.