Friday, March 30, 2012

Lafler v. Cooper: SCOTUS Extends the Constitutional Right of Effective Assistance of Counsel

On Wednesday, March 21, 2012 Justice Kennedy announced the Court’s 5-4 decision in the case of Lafler v. Cooper.  The majority opinion dictated the proper procedure for defendants to challenge their assistance of counsel as ineffective when it leads to the rejection of an otherwise favorable plea offer.  The Court found that in this case, defense counsel’s advice to the defendant to reject the plea offer, which counsel based on an incorrect interpretation of the law, unconstitutionally prejudiced the defendant because he was denied the more favorable sentence with his rejection of the plea offer.

Lafler was charged with assault with intent to murder, possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony, misdemeanor possession of marijuana and for being a habitual offender after an incident that took place on March 25, 2003, where Lafler repeatedly fired a gun at Kali Mundy.  Lafler did not refute that he in fact committed the crime, and initially expressed interest in a plea bargain.  However, upon the advice from his counsel, Lafler refused the prosecution’s offer to dismiss two of the charges and recommend a sentence of fifty-one to eighty-five months for the remaining charges.  Lafler’s attorney convinced him that since Lafler’s shots fired at Mundy only hit her below the waist, in the buttock, hip, and abdomen, he could not be convicted of assault with intent to murder under Michigan law.  Lafler, who chose to proceed forward with his trial, was convicted by the jury on all counts, and received a mandatory minimum sentence of 185 to 360 months in prison.

When Lafler subsequently brought a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in state court, his claim was denied.  The Michigan Court of Appeals also rejected Lafler’s claim, reasoning that despite the defendant’s post-conviction qualms with his attorney, the defendant knowingly rejected the plea and opted to be heard by a trial of his peers.  The Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear Lafler’s appeal.

The defendant then appealed to the federal system.  Beginning in the district court with a petition for federal habeas relief, the defendant found relief when the court ruled that the Michigan Court of Appeals misinterpreted the standards of ineffective assistance of counsel enumerated in Strickland v. Washington.  The district court instructed that the defendant should be sentenced according to the original plea offer, with a minimum sentence of fifty-one to eighty-five months.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling, and the Supreme Court subsequently granted certiorari.

The majority opinion, for which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined, held that to be eligible for relief, the defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice of counsel, there is a reasonable probability that the court would have accepted the plea offer.  Additionally, the conviction, sentence, or both must be less severe under the plea offer than under the judgment and sentence rendered by trial.

Finally, the Court clarified the proper remedy for ineffective advice that results in a trial and sentence with increased sentencing.  Instead of directly instituting the plea-bargain, as the district court did, the Court held that the prosecution should only be required to re-offer the original plea.  This gives the defendant the proper opportunity to accept the plea but leaves the ultimate decision to the court as to whether to accept the plea.  The court is justified in either accepting the plea to assign the defendant the lesser sentence, upholding the sentence that resulted from the prejudiced jury trial, or decreeing a new sentence that takes into account both the plea offer and the trial.

Critics of the majority opinion are distinguishing Lafler and Frye on the basis that unlike Frye, Lafler received the full benefit of having his case tried fairly in front of a jury of his peers, which is the constitutional right the Sixth Amendment purports to protect.  Lafler, therefore, could not have been prejudiced if his right to a fair trial was recognized and fulfilled.  The Supreme Court, however, rejected this reasoning, explaining that the right to effective assistance of counsel must extend to all the critical stages of a criminal proceeding, including pretrial stages that may involve plea-bargaining.  The Court asserted that a fair trial goes beyond merely ensuring a conviction’s reliability and extends to providing a fair process for the defendant.

Ali Eacho
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

Image by S.E.B. 


  1. I find the implications on how differently state and federal courts handle procedural matters particularly interesting in this case. The procedural history indicates that all levels of the Michigan courts were unwilling to compromise for a poor, black defendant. However, federal courts seemed to more readily recall that evidence is intended to be read in the light most favorable to the defendant, no matter his social background. I wonder what this ruling will do for poor, uneducated defendants who don't necessarily receive the best representation available. Hopefully it represents a new age of understanding in the courtroom; however, I can't help but wonder if it will make any significant difference in how individual jurisdictions will rule on identical cases.

  2. Amanda, I completely agree with your conflicted reaction to the Court's decision. On one hand it's refreshing to see a ruling that would seem to implicate greater protections for criminal defendants. On the other hand, we see the Court giving lower courts a great deal of discretion when a violation occurs in determining whether to reinstate the original plea offer or to adopt the sentence from the trial court. I think this broad power bestowed upon lower court judges to determine sentences probably reflects the compromise that took place between the Supreme Court Justices when deciding the case, especially since this ended up a 5-4 decision. Given the compromise, I too am skeptical of the actual effects this decision will have on the criminal justice system as a whole.

  3. Cooper was the one charged not lafler..