Ineffective Assistance of Counsel in Rejection of a Plea Bargain

In re Alvernaz (1992) 2 Cal.4th 924, is the controlling authority on the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel resulting in a defendant's rejection of an offered plea bargain. Agreeing with "all federal and state courts presented with this issue," the California Supreme Court held that "counsel's ineffective representation resulting in a defendant's rejection of an offered plea bargain, and in the defendant's decision to proceed to trial gives rise to a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel." (Alvernaz, supra, 2 Cal.4th at p. 934.) Applying Strickland v. Washington (1984) 466 U.S. 668, the court stated that proof of this kind of claim requires a defendant to show that (1) counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of professional reasonableness and (2) the defendant was prejudiced, i.e., there is a reasonable probability that he would have obtained a more favorable result absent counsel's unreasonable performance. (Alvernaz, supra, 2 Cal.4th at p. 937.) For assistance in applying the first element, reasonable professional performance, the Alvernaz court turned to the State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct and the American Bar Association's Standards for Criminal Justice. (Alvernaz, supra, 2 Cal.4th at p. 937.) "Under these guidelines, defense counsel must communicate accurately to a defendant the terms of any offer made by the prosecution, and inform the defendant of the consequences of rejecting it, including the maximum and minimum sentences which may be imposed in the event of a conviction." (Ibid.) Further, the analysis depends not on whether we "'would retrospectively consider counsel's advice to be right or wrong, but on whether that advice was within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases.'" (Ibid.) In Alvernaz, the Supreme Court concluded that the defendant failed to show prejudice. The offered plea bargain was for a four-or five-year term, with an actual term of two or two and a half years after deduction of work-time credits. The defendant claimed, and the court assumed for the sake of argument, that defendant's trial counsel advised him not to take the offer because he had a 70 to 80 percent chance of winning, and a loss would still result in a sentence of only about four years after deduction of work-time credits. (Alvernaz, supra, 2 Cal.4th at pp. 930-931, 945.) In fact, after being found guilty, the defendant received a life sentence; he calculated that, under regulations then in effect, he would likely not receive parole for more than 16 years. (Id. at p. 929.) The defendant's own declaration stated that he would have accepted a plea bargain but for his counsel's incorrect advice about the maximum sentence he faced if convicted at trial, but this was a self-serving statement and therefore not sufficient. The large difference between counsel's alleged estimate and the sentence actually imposed was "some corroborating evidence," but not enough in light of other evidence. The other evidence included defendant's statements indicating that he acted in large part on the basis of his counsel's view that he had a strong case and on his own powerful belief in his innocence. His counsel declared that the defendant insisted on his innocence adamantly. At trial, the defendant testified that he was innocent and presented an alibi defense. The Supreme Court concluded that his "decision to reject the plea offer was motivated primarily by a persistent, strong, and informed hope for exoneration at trial" and that "any evaluation of precise sentencing options was secondary in his thinking." On this basis, the court held that the defendant "has failed to establish a credible, independently corroborated prima facie showing of a reasonable probability that he would have accepted the plea offer but for his trial counsel's alleged inaccurate advice as to sentencing." (Alvernaz, supra, 2 Cal.4th at pp. 945-946.)