Can You Appeal a Plea Bargain?

When entering a guilty or no contest plea, you effectively give up your right to appeal the sentence, absent an egregious error by your attorney or the trial judge. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that a defendant can elect to waive many important constitutional rights and statutory rights during the plea bargaining process, including the right to appeal the sentence later.

You're charged with a string of bank robberies, but you swear it wasn't you. However, several eyewitnesses put you at the scene, and the bank teller picks you out of a lineup. The bad news keeps getting worse. Your criminal defense lawyer doesn't seem excited about your case and is even less enthusiastic about taking it to trial.

The odds are against you, so you take your lawyer's advice and accept a plea agreement. The prosecutor agrees to reduce the charges, and your maximum sentence will be much shorter than you expected. At least, that's what you think. But when you try to discuss this with your lawyer before pleading guilty, they shrug you off.

You aren't sure you understand all the terms and the waiver of rights, but you do it anyway because you're told you have an experienced lawyer.

Later, you realize your sentence is much different than you expected. You have waived your right to appeal the sentence, and a conviction on your record will bar you from certain employment opportunities. Now what? Find out below which grounds qualify to appeal a plea bargain.

Waiving a Right to Appeal

Courts want to safeguard against a "buyer's remorse" situation, in which the defendant knowingly and voluntarily enters into a plea deal but later decides they want to gamble and go to trial instead. Absent any other facts or circumstances, a defendant won't be able to appeal the sentence or withdraw a plea simply because they change their mind later.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

But what happens when your lawyer doesn't properly advise you on your plea bargain? You may have a viable claim for ineffective assistance of counsel if your lawyer doesn't adequately represent you at the plea bargaining stage of your criminal case.

The standard for this type of criminal appeal is exceptionally high. Unless you can show a serious error by your lawyer, it's challenging to win at the appellate court level. Some examples of what constitutes a serious error:

  • Your lawyer fails to explain the criminal charges to which you are pleading, such as a felony case, or a lesser offense, such as a misdemeanor case.
  • Your lawyer doesn't explain the collateral consequences of a plea or criminal conviction, such as immigration or possible deportation proceedings.
  • Your lawyer's bad advice results in the rejection of a plea bargain that would have resulted in a more favorable sentence than the outcome of a subsequent jury trial or guilty plea.

No matter how great your attorney's reputation is, if they don't clearly advise or explain everything to you or fail to negotiate a plea bargain on your behalf, you may have a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.

Plea Bargain Appeals in the Supreme Court

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the following rights:

  • The right to a speedy and public trial
  • The right to a fair trial with an impartial jury
  • The right to know the nature of the charges and evidence against you
  • The right to confront any witnesses against you
  • The right to effective assistance of counsel

In Strickland v. Washingtonthe U.S. Supreme Court outlined a two-pronged test that the trial court and the court of appeals must use to assess ineffective assistance of counsel claims. First, the defendant must show defense counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Second, the defendant must show there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different but for the defense counsel's unprofessional errors.

In Lafler v. Cooper, after the defendant submitted a writ of habeas corpus, the district court granted a conditional writ, and the Sixth Circuit Court affirmed. The Supreme Court found that the defense counsel provided deficient performance by advising the criminal defendant of an incorrect legal rule. The defendant relied on that bad advice and suffered prejudice because he received a sentence 3.5 times greater than he would have gotten under the plea.

In Missouri v. Frye, the defendant was not informed about the prosecution's offer to reduce a felony charge to a misdemeanor with a guilty plea and to recommend a 90-day sentence. The offer expired. Instead, the defendant pleaded guilty in an open plea (with no promise regarding a sentence recommendation) and received a three-year prison term.

The Supreme Court highlighted that defense counsel has a duty to communicate formal prosecution offers. Defendants must demonstrate two standards to show prejudice when a plea offer has lapsed or been rejected because of counsel's deficient performance.

First is a reasonable probability that the defendant would have accepted the more favorable plea offer. Second is that the plea would have been entered without the prosecution canceling it or the trial court refusing to accept it if they had the authority to exercise that discretion under state law.

Contact an Attorney if You're Concerned About Your Plea Agreement

It is best to speak with an experienced appellate attorney if you entered a plea deal without fully understanding your sentence or have questions about your plea's collateral consequences. You can receive tailored advice regarding:

  • When and how to file a notice of appeal after a sentencing hearing
  • Whether counsel made serious criminal procedure errors that could result in a new trial
  • Whether new evidence is likely to result in the granting of any post-conviction motions
  • The likelihood of an appellate court sending your case back to the trial court on remand

Remember, the Sixth Amendment guarantees your right to effective assistance of counsel at all critical stages of a criminal proceeding. That includes pretrial stages such as pretrial motion hearings and the plea bargaining stage.

Even a plea of nolo contendere (no contest) can have collateral consequences. For example, if you're charged with driving under the influence (DUI), your driver's license may be suspended. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney today to receive a free consultation.

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