Ineffective Assistance of Counsel in Plea Bargaining
Plea bargaining is a critical part of the criminal justice system because most cases are resolved through plea bargains rather than trials. A defendant may feel pressure to accept a plea deal, or they may be confused by the consequences of the decision. As a result, it is especially important for a defense attorney to discuss a client’s options with them and make sure that they make an informed decision. If an attorney falls short of this standard, however, the defendant may or may not have recourse. Making an ineffective assistance of counsel claim may be appropriate in some circumstances, but this usually requires severe misconduct by the attorney. If a lawyer’s ineffective assistance altered the outcome of the case, a judge may toss out the result of the plea bargain and reset the case to the beginning.
Duties of an Attorney
Whether they are a public defender or a private attorney, a defendant’s counsel needs to explain the main features of their case to them. This includes describing the probability of success at trial, the possible penalties that the client may face, the arguments that they can raise against the charges, and the conditions of any plea deal offered by the prosecution. The attorney should make sure that the client understands the pros and cons of taking a plea deal versus going to trial. They should investigate the client’s case and review the evidence carefully so that they can provide advice on whether a certain deal makes sense. However, the ultimate decision remains in the hands of the client.
A Defendant’s Decision
It is ultimately the defendant’s decision whether to propose or accept a plea bargain, not their lawyer’s. Furthermore, a lawyer has an ethical duty to relay a prosecutor’s plea bargain offer to the defendant and vice versa.
In addition to discussing the criminal consequences of a certain plea deal, an attorney must advise a defendant who is not a U.S. citizen on any immigration consequences of the deal. If pleading guilty puts them at risk of deportation, they are constitutionally entitled to know.
Bringing an Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim
The right to an attorney under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes adequate representation in the plea bargaining process. Thus, a criminal defendant might bring a claim based on ineffective assistance of counsel if the attorney fails to competently negotiate a plea deal for the defendant, or if the attorney does not explain the situation appropriately to them. These claims come in two parts. First, the defendant must show that the attorney’s representation was egregiously inadequate. Then, they must show that the poor quality of their representation affected the outcome of the case.
Ineffective assistance of counsel may arise when an attorney fails to negotiate a plea bargain after the defendant authorized them to conduct negotiations. It also may arise when an attorney inaccurately tells a client that they will not face certain consequences, or when an attorney fails to tell a client about the drawbacks of a certain deal in an effort to encourage them to accept it.
Proving that an attorney was in some way incompetent is not enough to prove ineffective assistance of counsel; the defendant must also prove that the incompetence changed the outcome of their case.
On the other hand, a defendant may not succeed in an ineffective assistance of counsel claim if the evidence suggests that they would have been convicted even if their attorney were competent. A claim also may not succeed if the defendant did not fully understand the consequences of taking a plea deal, but they likely would have made the same decision if they had understood the consequences.