Lafler v. Cooper
566 U.S. ___ (2012)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary
In this case, a criminal defendant sought a remedy when inadequate assistance of counsel caused nonacceptance of a plea offer and further proceedings led to a less favorable outcome. After the plea offer had been rejected, there was a full and fair trial before the jury. After a guilty verdict, defendant received a sentence harsher than that offered in the rejected plea bargain. The instant case came to the Court with the concession that counsel's advice with respect to the plea offer fell below the standard of adequate assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that, where counsel's ineffective advice led to an offer's rejection, and where the prejudice alleged was having to stand trial, a defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice, there was 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 actual judgment and sentence imposed. Therefore, the Court vacated the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded for further proceedings.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

LAFLER v. COOPER

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit

No. 10–209. Argued October 31, 2011      —Decided March 21, 2012

Respondent was charged under Michigan law with assault with intent to murder and three other offenses. The prosecution offered to dismiss two of the charges and to recommend a 51-to-85-month sentence on the other two, in exchange for a guilty plea. In a communication with the court, respondent admitted his guilt and expressed a willingness to accept the offer. But he rejected the offer, allegedly after his attorney convinced him that the prosecution would be unable to establish intent to murder because the victim had been shot below the waist. At trial, respondent was convicted on all counts and received a mandatory minimum 185-to-360-month sentence. In a subsequent hearing, the state trial court rejected respondent’s claim that his attorney’s advice to reject the plea constituted ineffective assistance. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting the ineffective-assistance claim on the ground that respondent knowingly and intelligently turned down the plea offer and chose to go to trial. Respondent renewed his claim in federal habeas. Finding that the state appellate court had unreasonably applied the constitutional effective-assistance standards laid out in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 , and Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U. S. 52 , the District Court granted a conditional writ and ordered specific performance of the original plea offer. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Applying Strickland, it found 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.

Held:

     1. Where counsel’s ineffective advice led to an offer’s rejection, and where the prejudice alleged is having to stand trial, a defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice, 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 actual judgment and sentence imposed. Pp. 3–11.

          (a) Because the parties agree that counsel’s performance was deficient, the only question is how to apply Strickland’s prejudice test where ineffective assistance results in a rejection of the plea offer and the defendant is convicted at the ensuing trial. Pp. 3–4.

          (b) In that context, the Strickland prejudice test requires a defendant to show a reasonable possibility that the outcome of the plea process would have been different with competent advice. The Sixth Circuit and other federal appellate courts have agreed with the Strickland prejudice test for rejected pleas adopted here by this Court. Petitioner and the Solicitor General propose a narrow view—that Strickland prejudice cannot arise from plea bargaining if the defendant is later convicted at a fair trial—but their reasoning is unpersuasive. First, they claim that the Sixth Amendment’s sole purpose is to protect the right to a fair trial, but the Amendment actually requires effective assistance at critical stages of a criminal proceeding, including pretrial stages. This is consistent with the right to effective assistance on appeal, see, e.g., Halbert v. Michigan, 545 U. S. 605 , and the right to counsel during sentencing, see, e.g., Glover v. United States, 531 U. S. 198 –204. This Court has not followed a rigid rule that an otherwise fair trial remedies errors not occurring at trial, but has instead inquired whether the trial cured the particular error at issue. See, e.g., Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U. S. 254 . Second, this Court has previously rejected petitioner’s argument that Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U. S. 364 , modified Strickland and does so again here. Fretwell and Nix v. Whiteside, 475 U. S. 157 , demonstrate that “it would be unjust to characterize the likelihood of a different outcome as legitimate ‘prejudice,’ ” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U. S. 362 –392, where defendants would receive a windfall as a result of the application of an incorrect legal principle or a defense strategy outside the law. Here, however, respondent seeks relief from counsel’s failure to meet a valid legal standard. Third, petitioner seeks to preserve the conviction by arguing that the Sixth Amendment’s purpose is to ensure a conviction’s reliability, but this argument fails to comprehend the full scope of the Sixth Amendment and is refuted by precedent. Here, the question is the fairness or reliability not of the trial but of the processes that preceded it, which caused respondent to lose benefits he would have received but for counsel’s ineffective assistance. Furthermore, a reliable trial may not foreclose relief when counsel has failed to assert rights that may have altered the outcome. See Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U. S. 365 . Petitioner’s position that a fair trial wipes clean ineffective assistance during plea bargaining also ignores the reality that criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials. See Missouri v. Frye, ante, at ___. Pp. 4–11.

     2. Where a defendant shows ineffective assistance has caused the rejection of a plea leading to a more severe sentence at trial, the remedy must “neutralize the taint” of a constitutional violation, United States v. Morrison, 449 U. S. 361 , but must not grant a windfall to the defendant or needlessly squander the resources the State properly invested in the criminal prosecution, see United States v. Mechanik, 475 U. S. 66 . If the sole advantage is that the defendant would have received a lesser sentence under the plea, the court should have an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendant would have accepted the plea. If so, the court may exercise discretion in determining whether the defendant should receive the term offered in the plea, the sentence received at trial, or something in between. However, resentencing based on the conviction at trial may not suffice, e.g., where the offered guilty plea was for less serious counts than the ones for which a defendant was convicted after trial, or where a mandatory sentence confines a judge’s sentencing discretion. In these circumstances, the proper remedy may be to require the prosecution to reoffer the plea. The judge can then exercise discretion in deciding whether to vacate the conviction from trial and accept the plea, or leave the conviction undisturbed. In either situation, a court must weigh various factors. Here, it suffices to give two relevant considerations. First, a court may take account of a defendant’s earlier expressed willingness, or unwillingness, to accept responsibility for his or her actions. Second, it is not necessary here to decide as a constitutional rule that a judge is required to disregard any information concerning the crime discovered after the plea offer was made. Petitioner argues that implementing a remedy will open the floodgates to litigation by defendants seeking to unsettle their convictions, but in the 30 years that courts have recognized such claims, there has been no indication that the system is overwhelmed or that defendants are receiving windfalls as a result of strategically timed Strickland claims. In addition, the prosecution and trial courts may adopt measures to help ensure against meritless claims. See Frye, ante, at ___. Pp. 11–14.

     3. This case arises under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), but because the Michigan Court of Appeals’ analysis of respondent’s ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim was contrary to clearly established federal law, AEDPA presents no bar to relief. Respondent has satisfied Strickland’s two-part test. The parties concede the fact of deficient performance. And respondent has shown that but for that performance there is a reasonable probability he and the trial court would have accepted the guilty plea. In addition, as a result of not accepting the plea and being convicted at trial, he received a minimum sentence 3½ times greater than he would have received under the plea. As a remedy, the District Court ordered specific performance of the plea agreement, but the correct remedy is to order the State to reoffer the plea. If respondent accepts the offer, the state trial court can exercise its discretion in determining whether to vacate respondent’s convictions and resentence pursuant to the plea agreement, to vacate only some of the convictions and resentence accordingly, or to leave the conviction and sentence resulting from the trial undisturbed. Pp. 14–16.

376 Fed. Appx. 563, vacated and remanded.

     Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined, and in which Roberts, C. J., joined as to all but Part IV. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.