Ineffective assistance of counsel in advising waiver of right to claim ineffective assistance of counsel

When a plea agreement includes a waiver of rights to appeal, claim ineffective assistance of counsel, and to move to withdraw the plea, can it logically be enforced to preclude a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in the advice to enter into the agreement? Last week, in People v. Orozco, case no. F056712, (5th Dist. Ja. 8, 2010), the court of appeal joins several federal courts in reaching the only sensible answer: of course not.

To hold such a waiver enforceable “would deprive a defendant of the ‘opportunity to assert his Sixth Amendment right to counsel where he had accepted the waiver in reliance on delinquent representation.’ ” [Citation.]

We agree with the federal authorities and find justice dictates that a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in connection with the making of the waiver agreement cannot be barred by the agreement that is the product of the alleged ineffectiveness.

Waiver of Appeal Rights in Plea Agreements

Plea agreements often waive the right to appeal, but they aren’t always what they seem, especially when it comes to how they define the scope of the waiver. For a lesson in how to determine whether a defendant has waived the right to bring a particular appeal, check out United States v. Cope, case no. 06-50441 (9th Cir. June 4, 2008).

Cope pled guilty to a single count of possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 120 months imprisonment and lifetime supervised release. His plea agreement stated that he waived appeal of his sentence so long as it met three criteria. On appeal, he challenged the length of his supervised release

The court walks you right through the steps, applying these rules:

  • The waiver of a statutory right to appeal is reviewed de novo.
  • A knowing and voluntary waiver of statutory rights to appeal a sentence is valid.
  • The scope of a waiver in a plea agreement is subject to the same rules of interpretation as used for any other contract (at least, “for the most part”).
  • Any ambiguity will be construed against the drafter (usually, the government).

It’s the last of these that allows Cope to reach the merits of his challenge to the length of his supervised release.  Because part of the language defining the scope of Cope’s waiver – which waived appeal of any sentence “within or below the range corresponding to the determined total offense level and criminal history category” – defines a non-appealable sentence in terms of criteria that apply only to the term of imprisonment, and not to the term of the supervised release, the court finds the provision ambiguous and construes it against the government:

As drafted, however, this provision cannot sensibly be applied to a term of supervised release. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, the offense level and criminal history category do not control the term of supervised release, as they do the term of imprisonment. Rather, the type of offense determines the length of the Guidelines range for the term of supervised release. See U.S.S.G. § 5D1.2(a) (Nov. 2002) (specifying supervised release range for Class C felonies); 18 U.S.C. § 3559(a)(3) (Class C felony defined as a crime with a maximum term of imprisonment between 10 and 25 years); 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(b)(2) (2003) (maximum term for Cope’s crime is 20 years). This ambiguity in the waiver provision makes it impossible for us to determine whether the prerequisites for waiver have been met with regard to Cope’s term of supervised release. Because we “steadfastly” apply the rule that “any lack of clarity” in a plea agreement should be construed against the government as drafter, [citation], we hold that this ambiguity in the waiver provision permits Cope to appeal the length of his term of supervised release.

It does Cope little good in the end, however.  While the court entertains his appeal, it affirms the lifetime supervised release.

Summary Rejection of Plea Agreement is Error

It’s not often that you see an opinion on a writ petition start with a statement that the trial court erred but the writ is denied. The reason for that sort of introduction in Morgan v. U.S. District Court (D.Ariz.), case no. 07-70201 (9th Cir. Oct. 9, 2007), is because the petitioner sought just a little more relief than he was entitled to.

Morgan accepted a plea agreement that included a sentencing term pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C). So far, so good.

The stipulated sentence was near the upper limit of the guidelines but the district court opined that an upward departure may be appropriate. This led the district court to express its disdain for sentencing agreements because the inclusion of the sentence left nothing for the court to do:

Reasoning that acceptance of stipulated sentences as a general matter renders a district court’s entry of judgment a mere formality, the [district] court concluded: “I don’t think that’s what Article III federal court should be reduced to. So for that reason, we’re going to reject the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) stipulated term in this agreement as being unreasonable as a matter of law, not necessarily unreasonable as a matter of fact.”

Faced with the options of (1) withdrawing his plea and going to trial or (2) pleading guilty and leaving sentencing to a court that had already expressed its opinion that an upward departure might be appropriate, Morgan sought mandamus to compel the district court to accept the plea agreement, including the sentence.

The Ninth refuses to compel the district court to do so, but holds that the district court erred in rejecting the plea without a particularized analysis. The court’s summary rejection of the plea was a failure to exercise its discretion, so the Ninth remands for the district court to “make an individualized assessment of the propriety of Morgan’s stipulated sentence, in light of the factual circumstances specific to his case.”

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