Was Counsel Ineffective for Letting Client Plead Guilty?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 10, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The fast-track program allows federal prosecutors to offer shorter sentences to defendants who plead guilty at an early stage in the prosecution and agree to waive appeal and other rights. If there's substantial evidence that a client is guilty, the fast-track program is good option.

Except the client might turn around and accuse you of ineffective counsel.

Claro Gutierrez Gonzalez pleaded guilty, pursuant to a plea agreement, to possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine and unlawfully reentering the U.S. after removal as an aggravated felon. He was sentenced to 78 months in prison.

On appeal, Gonzalez asserted that there were no meritorious issues for appeal, but questioned the effectiveness of defense counsel's assistance in permitting Gonzalez to enter his guilty plea.

Was Gonzalez's attorney actually ineffective for letting him take the express train to plea bargainsville? The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said no.

In addition to the ineffective assistance claims, Gonzalez complained in a pro se brief that his trial counsel failed to provide copies of transcripts, object to the presentence report, seek a downward adjustment for his role in the offense, or seek a departure based on the disparity between sentencing in fast-track and non-fast-track jurisdictions. The appellate court ruled against him on each argument.

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure (FRCP) 11 outlines the criteria for a valid plea, and states, "Before accepting a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, the court must address the defendant personally in open court and determine that the plea is voluntary."

In an unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Gonzalez's plea was knowing and voluntary, and the record did not establish that Gonzalez's attorney was defective. The court also noted that the record did not conclusively demonstrate ineffective counsel with regard to the claims raised in Gonzalez's pro se brief.

Finding none of Gonzalez's ineffective assistance claims cognizable on direct appeal, the Fourth Circuit advised that Gonzalez needed to pursue his claims in an appropriate proceeding for post-conviction relief in order to permit adequate development of the record.

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