The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday released two remarkable rulings on the right of criminal defendants to the protection of the Sixth Amendment when engaged in plea bargaining. Since far more than 90 percent of all criminal cases are resolved through plea negotiations, the majority of the court reasoned, criminal defendants are constitutionally guaranteed the right to effective assistance of counsel during the plea agreement process. If that right is violated, criminal convictions can be overturned. The ruling came after two cases were brought before the court: One involving an attempted murder case, and another involving a defendant’s conviction for driving with a revoked license. In the attempted murder case, the defendant had allegedly shot a woman in her buttocks, hips and abdomen. He was offered a plea bargain, but his lawyer told him not to accept the offer, wrongly advising the defendant that he could not be convicted of attempted murder since all the shots had been below the waist. Under the plea offer, the defendant would have served seven years and one month in prison. On the recommendation of his ill-advised attorney, however, he went to trial and was sentenced to 30 years. In the revoked license case, the defendant was arrested for a fourth offense of driving on a revoked license, which is a felony in Missouri. He was offered two plea agreements, one of which would have reduced the charge to a misdemeanor with a sentence of three months. His attorney never told him of the offers, however, and he was sentenced to three years in prison on a guilty plea. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to counsel and, as Justice Kennedy said, “The right to counsel is the right to effective assistance of counsel.” That said, it has not been clear until now that criminal convictions could be overturned if a criminal defense attorney fails to provide adequate representation during plea negotiations. Under yesterday’s rulings, the court made clear that all criminal defense lawyers are required to inform their clients of any plea bargain offers they receive, whether they advise accepting them or not. They must also give good advice during plea negotiations and at all stages of a criminal case. Defense attorneys are already ethically bound to follow those rules, The question before the court was whether failing to do so could be cause for overturning a conviction — and the 5-4 majority said yes. The ruling is not without controversy — even among the justices. In dissent, Justice Scalia pointed out that the two defendants in these appeals had been convicted — one by a guilty plea and the other by a jury. There was no evidence that the convictions themselves had been unfair — only that they had not been given good advice about the plea agreements on offer. Since there is no constitutional right for defendants to receive plea bargain offers, Scalia argued, some remedy besides the reversal of their convictions would be more appropriate. Whatever your thoughts on the law, these cases do underscore the fundamental importance of obtaining practical, accurate counsel if you are ever accused of a crime. Whether you resolve your case by plea agreement or go to trial, the choice must always be yours, and you have the right to be advised well. Source: NPR, “Court: Lawyers Must Adequately Help On Plea Deals,” Associated Press, March 21, 2012