March 27, 2023

Zealously defending the client from the start

The U.S. Supreme Court recently recognized the value of a criminal defense attorney in the pre-trial process. Noting that some 94 percent to 97 percent of convictions are the result of guilty pleas, the high court said people have the Constitutional right to an effective criminal defense lawyer during the plea bargaining process.

This is a good thing, most lawyers agree. When 19 out of 20 cases – everything from DUI charges to felony murders – are resolved with plea agreements, it’s essential that effective lawyer action is part of that process from the beginning.

Bloggers at noted that while it may result in more appeals because of ineffective advice given by counsel, it eventually will result in more knowledgeable guilty pleas, and thus get us closer to the ideal of justice. In that blog, Florida criminal defense attorney Ian Goldstein summed up the issues in the two cases before the Supreme Court, “The bottom line seems to be that the accused are entitled to be advised of any potential plea offer, and to have the effective assistance of counsel in making the decision to either accept or reject that offer.”

In a 5-4 decision reached in cases from Missouri, and Michigan, the high court ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel extends to pretrial stages, including plea bargaining. In one case, the attorney advised his client that he could not be convicted of intent to murder under Michigan law, leading the client to reject a plea agreement that would have resulted in a 51-to-85-month sentence, or between 4½ to seven years. The attorney was incorrect, and the client was convicted on all counts against him, receiving a sentence of 185-to-360 months. That’s a minimum of 15-plus years, and a maximum of 30 years.

In the Missouri case, the client was charged with a felony of driving with a revoked license. Prosecutors offered to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor and offered a 90-day sentence. The attorney never told his client about the offers, and the client later pleaded guilty without an offer. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

On the Courtroom Strategy blog, attorney Oscar Michelen said the decisions confirm what most attorneys are – or should be – doing. He says bluntly: “Any lawyer who fails to advise a client about a plea deal, and who fails to advise the client when it’s in the client’s best interest to take the deal is incompetent and ineffective.”

A law blog from Philadelphia, was equally blunt: “Methinks that when one’s liberty hangs in the balance, any decent, ethical lawyer would inform his client of all potential avenues to resolve a matter. It astounds me that we, who are sworn to zealously advocate for our clients, would need the United States Supreme Court to remind us of our duties.”

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