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Sixth Circuit Decision Vacated and Remanded by Supreme Court in Notable Habeas Case

Posted in Supreme Court

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Lafler v. Cooper, one of two notable habeas cases that were pending before the Court.  In the criminal case underlying Lafler, the defendant was charged with assault with intent to murder in addition to three other offenses.  The prosecution offered to dismiss two of the charges and recommend a sentence between 51 and 85 months.  The defendant’s attorney allegedly convinced him that the prosecution would be unable to prove intent to murder, so the defendant rejected the plea deal.  After a fair trial, the defendant was convicted on all counts and received the mandatory minimum 185-to-360-month sentence.  The defendant claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, and eventually pursued his claim in federal habeas under 28 U.S.C. §2254.  After a Michigan District Court granted a conditional writ of habeas, the Sixth Circuit affirmed finding that “counsel had provided deficient performance by advising respondent of an incorrect legal rule, and that respondent suffered prejudice because he lost the opportunity to take the more favorable sentence offered in the plea.”

According to the Supreme Court, the defendant was required to “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 . . . 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.”  While the Supreme Court agreed that the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel, it disagreed with the District Court and the Sixth Circuit on the appropriate remedy.  The District Court had ordered specific performance of the plea agreement, which was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit.  The Supreme Court found that the correct remedy was to order the state to reoffer the plea deal.  If the deal is accepted, the trial court can determine whether to vacate the convictions and resentence, to vacate only some convictions and resentence, or to leave the convicted and sentence undisturbed. 

The Supreme Court’s decision is significant for holding that criminal defendants have the right to effective assistance of counsel during plea bargaining, even when it results in them turning down a plea and being convicted in a fair trial.