March 21, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Lafler v. Cooper

On March 21, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Lafler v. Cooper, No. 10-209, holding that a defendant who receives ineffective advice that results in rejection of a plea offer and conviction at trial may be entitled to relief from the sentence after conviction, but the proper remedy will be tailored to the defendant's circumstances.   

In March 2003, Lafler fired multiple shots at a female victim for unclear reasons, but she survived. Lafler was later charged with multiple crimes under Michigan law, including assault with intent to murder. The prosecution offered to dismiss certain charges and recommended a sentence of 51 to 85 months in exchange for a guilty plea. Lafler expressed willingness to accept this plea in a communication with the court but then rejected the offer, allegedly after his lawyer persuaded him that the prosecution could not establish intent to murder because he shot the victim below the waist. Lafler instead went to trial, was convicted on all counts, and received a mandatory minimum sentence of 185 to 360 months' imprisonment. Lafler pursued an ineffective assistance of counsel claim in state court, which was rejected by the trial court and the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to file an appeal. Lafner then filed for federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court held that the Michigan Court of Appeals had unreasonably applied the standards of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and granted a conditional writ. It ordered specific performance of the 51 to 85-month plea agreement. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. 

The Supreme Court considered how to apply Strickland's prejudice test when the defendant rejects a plea on advice of counsel but is subsequently convicted at trial. Taking into account "the reality that criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials," the Court determined that the defendant must show that ineffective assistance of counsel "caused the rejection of a plea leading to a trial and a more severe sentence." The remedy for such a constitutional violation must be tailored, with the court retaining some discretion, and could result in a resentencing or in requiring the prosecution to re-offer the plea. 

Applying these standards to Lafner's circumstances, the Court determined that deficient performance had been conceded, that Lafner had shown a reasonable probability that he and the trial court would have accepted the guilty plea, and that as a result of not accepting the plea, he was convicted at trial and received a sentence 3 ½ times greater than he would have received under the plea. The remedy for this violation was not to order specific performance of the original plea agreement but rather to order the prosecution to re-offer the plea, which then provides the trial court an opportunity to exercise discretion as to whether to vacate the convictions and resentence pursuant to the plea agreement, to vacate only some of the convictions and resentence, or to reject the plea agreement and leave the convictions undisturbed. 

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined, and in which Chief Justice Roberts joined except as to Part IV. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of the Court

The Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP website uses cookies to make your browsing experience as useful as possible. In order to have the full site experience, keep cookies enabled on your web browser. By browsing our site with cookies enabled, you are agreeing to their use. Review Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP's cookies information for more details.