Puerto Rico District Court

Attorney’s ineffective counsel during plea-bargaining stage violates defendant’s 6th Amendment rights

Attorney's ineffective counsel during plea-bargaining stage violates defendant's 6th Amendment rightsDownload the opinion: United States of America v. Bernis González Miranda

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Bernis González Miranda as part of an anti-corruption investigation that targeted corrupt law enforcement officers. González Miranda worked as an officer for the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections. Before going to trial, González Miranda had attempted and failed to enter into a plea bargain with the government.

After being found guilty on all counts,¹ González Miranda claimed his attorney was negligent in completing a plea agreement. González Miranda claims he was willing to plead guilty to all charges since the beginning of the case, and that his attorney’s lack of diligence concerning the plea offers by the Department of Justice exposed him to a longer sentence. González Miranda’s attorney alleges he informed González Miranda of the government’s plea offers, and it was González Miranda who knowingly and voluntarily rejected the offers.

Issues: What constitutes ineffective assistance counsel during the plea bargaining stage to merit potentially voiding a sentence already imposed?

González Miranda was sentenced to a prison term of more than 65 years. While the court at first rejected González Miranda’s request seeking relief alleging incompetent representation, the court granted his Motion for Reconsideration filed afterwards.

In these cases, a defendant must show that his counsel’s performance was deficient and that it resulted in prejudice. The court must evaluate if the trial counsel’s representation failed to meet an objective standard of reasonableness. The defendant must show that the counsel’s action was so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have made it, as well as a «reasonable probability» that if counsel had acted differently, his trial would have had a more favorable outcome.²

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel extends to the consideration of plea offers that lapse or that are rejected because of the counsel’s negligence.³

In a case like González Miranda’s, he must show there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the Court,⁴ and that González Miranda would have accepted the plea, the prosecution would not have withdrawn it and that the court would have accepted its terms, concluding in a less severe sentence than the one imposed.

González Miranda expresses that his intention was to plead guilty and avoid trial, and that his attorney was aware of such intention. González Miranda claims he had no knowledge of the government’s attempts to bargain a plea deal until the offers had expired.

At first, the Department of Justice offered González the opportunity to serve a prison sentence of 14 years for pleading guilty. González’s attorney contends his client rejected the offer, but provided no evidence of the rejection.

Afterwards, the Department of Justice offered a plea deal in which González Miranda would serve 15 years in exchange for pleading guilty. González Miranda’s attorney contends the plea offer was rejected, but later decided to change his client’s plea without Gonzalez Miranda’s authorization and without an executed plea agreement.

On the first day of trial, the prosecution offered a last plea deal, in which they offered a 20-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. The court determined it was evident that the government and the defendant had the desire to plead guilty. Nevertheless, the defense counsel failed to finalize the deal and the plea agreement never materialized.

After two hearings on this matter, the court decided that the attorney’s testimony regarding this negotiation was very inconsistent with respect to the government’s second plea offer. The court was especially puzzled with the attorney’s account of the process of communication with his client, the timeline of his account, the fact that the attorney decided to change pleas by his own initiative, and how much time would pass between visits to his client in prison.

The court found that the attorney also failed to abide by the professional standards in his dealings with the government throughout the plea negotiation process, and determined that González Miranda had no knowledge of the first offer.

The court concluded that, if not for the attorney’s deficient counsel, Gonzalez Miranda’s outcome would have been much more favorable and as remedy, ordered the State to reoffer the plea agreement for 20 years. The court must then decide if it will vacate the sentence imposed and resentence according to the agreement.

¹ González Miranda was charged and convicted on three counts of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine; three counts of attempting to possess with intent to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine; and three counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug transaction.

² Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)

³ Missouri v. Frye, 132 S.Ct. 1399 (2012)

Lafler v.Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376 (2012)

Summary: Cristian González