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Missouri v. Frye - 566 U.S. 134, 132 S. Ct. 1399 (2012)


Hill established that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in the plea bargain context are governed by the two-part test set forth in Strickland. In Hill, the decision turned on the second part of the Strickland test. There, a defendant who had entered a guilty plea claimed his counsel had misinformed him of the amount of time he would have to serve before he became eligible for parole. But the defendant had not alleged that, even if adequate advice and assistance had been given, he would have elected to plead not guilty and proceed to trial. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court found that no prejudice from the inadequate advice had been shown or alleged.


Respondent Frye was charged with driving with a revoked license. Because he had been convicted of the same offense three times before, he was charged, under Missouri law, with a felony carrying a maximum 4-year prison term. The prosecutor sent Frye's counsel a letter, offering two possible plea bargains, including an offer to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor and to recommend, with a guilty plea, a 90-day sentence. Counsel did not convey the offers to Frye, and they expired. Less than a week before Frye's preliminary hearing, he was again arrested for driving with a revoked license. He subsequently pleaded guilty with no underlying plea agreement and was sentenced to three years in prison. Seeking postconviction relief in state court, he alleged his counsel's failure to inform him of the earlier plea offers denied him the effective assistance of counsel, and he testified that he would have pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor had he known of the offer. The court denied his motion, but the Missouri appellate court reversed, holding that Frye met both of the requirements for showing a Sixth Amendment violation under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674. Specifically, the court found that defense counsel had been ineffective in not communicating the plea offers to Frye and concluded that Frye had shown that counsel's deficient performance caused him prejudice because  he pleaded guilty to a felony instead of a misdemeanor.


Does the constitutional right to counsel extend to the negotiation and consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected?




The Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel extends to the consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected. That right applies to “all 'critical' stages of the criminal proceedings.” Hillv.Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 106 S. Ct. 366, 88 L. Ed. 2d 203, established that Strickland's two-part test governs ineffective-assistance claims in the plea bargain context. There, the defendant had alleged that his counsel had given him inadequate advice about his plea, but he failed to show that he would have proceeded to trial had he received the proper advice. In Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 130 S. Ct. 1473, 176 L. Ed. 2d 284, where a plea offer was set aside because counsel had misinformed the defendant of its immigration consequences, this Court made clear that “the negotiation of a plea bargain is a critical” stage  for ineffective-assistance purposes, and rejected the argument  made by the State in this case that a knowing and voluntary plea supersedes defense counsel's errors. The State attempts to distinguish Hill and Padilla from the instant case. It notes that Hill and Padilla concerned whether there was ineffective assistance leading to acceptance of a plea offer, a process involving a formal court appearance with the defendant and all counsel present, while no formal court proceedings are involved when a plea offer has lapsed or been rejected; and it insists that there is no right to receive a plea offer in any event. Thus, the State contends, it is unfair to subject it to the consequences of defense counsel's inadequacies when the opportunities for a full and fair trial, or for a later guilty plea albeit on less favorable terms, are preserved. While these contentions are neither illogical nor without some persuasive force, they do not suffice to overcome the simple reality that 97 percent of federal convictions and 94 percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas. Plea bargains have become so central to today's criminal justice system that defense counsel must meet responsibilities in the plea bargain process to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires at critical stages of the criminal process.

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