On Wednesday, March 21, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Missouri v. Frye, holding that the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel extends to the consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas and Alito.
The defendant, Galin Frye, had three previous convictions of driving with a revoked license. When he was arrested again for the same offense, he was facing a felony charge and a potential four years in prison under Missouri law. On November 15, 2007, the prosecution sent Frye’s defense attorney a letter outlining two options for plea bargains. The first offer stated that if Frye agreed to plead guilty to the felony charge, the prosecution would recommend a three-year sentence, along with serving ten days of jail. For the second offer, if Frye pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, the prosecution would recommend that Frye serve ninety days in jail, and the charge carried a maximum of only one-year imprisonment. Frye’s attorney, however, never communicated either offer to Frye or responded to the prosecution, and both offers expired on December 28, 2007. By the time Frye’s preliminary hearing came, he had been arrested again for driving with a revoked license. Frye subsequently pleaded guilty not in accordance with any plea agreement and was sentenced to three years in prison.
In state court, Frye filed a post-conviction motion claiming that he received ineffective assistance of counsel – a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights – because his attorney failed to inform him of the prosecution’s plea offers. While the state court denied the this motion, the Court of Appeals of Missouri of the Western District found in favor of Frye, reversing and remanding the issue back to the lower court. The case was appealed, and the Supreme Court then granted certiorari.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court emphasized the importance of plea-bargaining in the context of the criminal justice system, noting that ninety-seven percent of all federal cases and ninety-four percent of all state cases are resolved through a plea bargain. This underscored the importance of the Supreme Court’s ruling that defense counsel has a duty to communicate any formal plea offer from the prosecution to the defendant. Should defense counsel fail to communicate a formal offer, a defendant may have redress if he can prove two requirements. First, the defendant must prove that if advised of the plea, there is a reasonable probability that he or she would have taken the plea. Second, the defendant must prove that if he or she would have taken the plea, there is a reasonable probability that the prosecution would not have rescinded the offer, and likewise, that the presiding court would have accepted the offer.
Applying these standards specifically to Frye’s situation, the Court concluded that while Frye likely demonstrated that he would have taken the plea had his counsel advised him, the record did not address the likelihood of the prosecution rescinding the offer or the judge accepting the plea in court. Given Frye’s most recent arrest before his preliminary hearing on the charge, the Court remanded the case to the Missouri Court of Appeals to determine whether the prosecution and/or presiding judge would reasonably have allowed the plea to go forward.
The dissent contended that the Frye’s constitutional rights were not violated because the he was never entitled to the offer in the first place. If however, the prosecution’s offer was unreasonable, the trial court judge’s ability to accept or reject the plea acts as a check on prosecutorial power. The mere fact that Frye pleaded guilty to the charge without knowing a plea was offered does not negate his rights to be informed that a more beneficial offer was made. In addition to the criminal justice system’s increased efficiency, plea bargains allow for prosecutors to make determinations as to the fair application of the law. This power should not be abrogated by the whims of defense counsel.
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