Recognizing that the “right to effective assistance of counsel is a core value” of our justice system, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo to federal prosecutors instructing them that they should no longer enter into plea agreements requiring that defendants waive their right to assert claims on ineffective assistance of counsel on direct appeal or in habeas proceedings. This new policy, issued on October 14, 2014, will bring uniformity to the plea bargaining process engaged in federal courts across the county-- as at least 35  of the nations’ 94 United States Attorney’s  Offices required most defendants who pled guilty to execute these waivers.

All defendants have a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel—and defendants charged in the federal system need competent counsel who is experienced and knowledgeable about federal criminal law and procedure.

Defendants who are charged in federal court face difficult decisions, partly because:

  • the crimes charged are often complex in nature,
  • charges are frequently brought after lengthy investigations, and
  • defendants are often joined for trial with other alleged co-conspirators.

ALL DEFENSE LAWYERS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL

Many federal defendants who are charged in multi-defendant cases are given the option of cooperating against their co-defendants in the hopes of earning a lesser sentence. Federal  sentencing rules are very complicated, as federal judges are required to consider complicated advisory Sentencing Guidelines which are amended each year and are also required a host of factors set forth in  before passing sentence. While most lawyers who routinely practice in federal criminal courts are experienced practitioners, some are not—and occasionally lawyers make serious errors which prejudice their clients.

While defendants who are convicted at trial have the right to appeal their convictions, allfederal defendants have the statutory right to appeal their sentences. In addition, federal defendants who can demonstrate that their conviction or sentence is constitutionally defective also have the right to bring post-conviction and post-appeal challenges to their sentence (generally within a year after their conviction and sentence has been upheld on appeal or is otherwise final) pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 2255.

However, approximately 20 years ago, a number of United States’ Attorney’s Office began requiring defendants who pled guilty to waive their rights to appeal and to waive their rights to challenge their rights post-sentencing in a habeas corpus or collateral proceedings brought under §2255. Given the fact that over 97% of the defendants charged in federal court, these waivers became the rule rather than the exception in a number of federal courts—although some district judges refused to accept these waivers or required the prosecutor to demonstrate that a defendant was receiving some substantial benefit in exchange for the waiver.  

APPEAL WAIVERS—THE FOURTH CIRCUIT PERSPECTIVE 

Defendants have sought to challenge these appeal and §, 2255 waivers in court with very limited success. Like other courts, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which hears appeals from federal courts in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland) has held that waivers of appellate and habeas rights are generally enforceable so long as the federal judge who conducts the plea hearing specifically reviews the waiver provision with the defendant to make sure that the defendant understands the valuable rights he or she is giving up when entering into such a plea agreement—in other words, ensuring that the waiver is both knowing and voluntary. See United States v. Lemaster, 403 F. 3d 216 (4thCir. 2005). However, the Fourth Circuit has also acknowledged that a defendant waiver of appellate rights does not cover situations which the defendant could not have reasonably contemplated when he executed the plea agreement—and  so it follows  that a defendant who receives ineffective assistance of counsel prior to and when  entering into a plea agreement did not knowingly waive his right to appeal or reasonably contemplate that he was agreeing to waive his right to challenge the defective advice he received. In  United States v. Poindexter, 492 F. 3d 263 (4th Cir. 2007), the Fourth Circuit suggested as much, holding that a defendant who signs an appeal waiver but then chooses to appeal has the right to effective assistance of counsel in pursuing that appeal and in challenging the scope and legitimacy of the appeal waiver. 

After Poindexteter was decided, a number of district judges in the Fourth Circuit refused to accept appeal waivers if those waivers did not contain an exception for ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Some United States Attorney’s Offices (such as the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina) changed the waiver provisions of their  plea agreements, allowing defendants to pursue claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. However, because a number of federal appellate courts held that defendants could waive their right to pursue ineffective  assistance claims,  a number of federal prosecutors  around the county continued to require cooperating defendants to completely waive their appellate and habeas rights.

ZEALOUS REPRESENTATION IS KEY

The American Bar Association and other organizations lobbied the Justice Department to address this problem—and Deputy Attorney General Cole’s October 14, 2014 memorandum appears to properly recognize that a defendant who is prejudiced by his lawyer’s defective performance should always be allowed to obtain redress in the federal courts. Defendants should insist that their lawyers always explain their rights and the ins and outs of any proffered plea agreement, and our federal courts should continue to insist that both retained and appointed counsel represent defendants zealously within the bounds of prevailing court, constitutional and ethical rules. Federal defendants who have the financial ability to retain counsel should carefully choose a lawyer who has substantial experience and demonstrated competence in federal court—as choosing a lawyer is often one of the most important decisions a defendant (or putative defendant) will make.