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US Supreme Court says right to effective criminal defense includes plea deals

Posted on in Criminal Defense

The vast majority of criminal cases in the United States resolve with some sort of plea. Many defendants charged with a crime choose to go to court without an attorney and enter a guilty plea of some sort. Other defendants enter negotiated plea agreements.

Often, a plea agreement can minimize the damages that a criminal case can impose against a defendant, but criminal laws are complex and the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction can vary widely based upon the nature of the allegations.

The United States Supreme Court ruled this week that a defendant's right to effective criminal representation extends to any plea agreement or plea offer that a prosecutor may present. The court essentially ruled, in a split decision, that plea agreements are an important aspect of criminal defense.

Experienced Santa Cruz criminal defense lawyers know that an aggressive defense keeps one eye on the potential for a trial, while analyzing the legal and factual ramifications that the prosecutor's case may impose.

In California especially, the nature of a criminal charge may carry significant consequences based not only upon the complex sentencing provision--which in many cases can involve sentencing enhancements that can be tacked on to a charge--but also in light of the strict provisions involved with the three strikes law.

The recent Supreme Court ruling did not involve cases under California's criminal statutes, but the high court's ruling is binding in all courts across the country.

One of the cases involved a defendant who was charged in another state with assault with intent to murder. The defendant reportedly rejected a plea agreement for a four to seven year sentence. The defendant claimed his Michigan lawyer said that because the defendant shot the victim below the waist and missed a shot to the woman's head, he would not be convicted of the intent to murder aspect of the charge. Ultimately, the defendant was convicted at trial and sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.

A separate case involved a defendant in Missouri charged with driving without a license. The defendant claimed that his lawyer failed to inform the defendant of two plea offers the prosecutor put on the table for a 90-day jail sentence. The offers reportedly expired and the defendant was again arrested for driving with a revoked license. He was ultimately convicted of the offenses and sentenced to three years in prison.

Neither case was resolved in the Supreme Court; each was remanded to the trial court level for further consideration of whether the defendants should have their individual cases reopened. The government argued against the high court's ultimate ruling saying that defendants only have the right to a fair trial.

The Supreme Court essentially ruled that a represented defendant has the right to reasonably competent advice from a criminal defense lawyer regarding plea agreements. The court's ruling does not say that defendants necessarily have the right to a lesser sentence or lesser charges.

Source: Reuters, "Supreme Court extends effective lawyer right to plea deals," James Vicini, Mar. 21, 2012

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