By John Van Swearingen

On Wednesday, November 23, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Rodriguez v. Bush. This matter was a habeas corpus petition brought by an offender sentenced to forty-five years in prison for drug trafficking. The United States District Court for the District of South Carolina denied Rodriguez’s petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (2012), holding that Rodriguez’s claim for ineffective assistance of counsel failed to establish that his defense was prejudiced by his counsel’s performance. Rodriguez’s claim was rooted in his counsel’s failure to object to state trial judge’s denial of Rodriguez’s accepted plea offer. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of Rodriguez’s petition on the basis that there is no federal or constitutional right to have a plea bargain accepted by a trial court, and therefore, his counsel’s failure to object could not establish prejudice to Rodriguez’s defense.

Facts and Procedural History

In 2009, on the day Rodriguez’s trial, the prosecutor offered Rodriguez and his co-defendants various plea bargains. The offer to Rodriguez was for a recommended sentence of 20 years, and Rodriguez’s co-defendants were made similar offers. The offers to the co-defendants were accepted by the court.

However, when Rodriguez’s counsel presented the plea offer to the trial judge, the judge rejected the offer, stating that “he was not going to accept the plea and that he was ready to try a case this week.” While Rodriguez’s counsel did attempt to convince the judge to accept the plea deal, he did not object on the record to preserve the rejection for appeal.

The state court denied Rodriguez’s motion for post-conviction relief, stating that his counsel’s failure to object did not prejudice Rodriguez’s defense and the trial court’s denial of the plea offer did not violate Rodriguez’s due process rights. Rodriguez then appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court, but certiorari was denied. Rodriguez then filed a petition in federal court under § 2254.

The Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim

Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984), governs ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Under Strickland, to prove ineffective assistance of counsel, Rodriguez must show (1) “that counsel’s performance was deficient” and (2) “that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.”

Despite being a two-pronged test, a reviewing court is free to examine the prejudice prong first, as it is dispositive to the claim. Rodriguez was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to object to the rejection of the plea deal, because a defendant cannot be prejudiced by a claim that has no merit under governing law. Therefore, Rodriguez’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim fails.

There is No Due Process Claim to Have a Plea Deal Accepted by the Court

In Missouri v. Frye, 132 S. Ct. 1399, 1410 (2012), the Supreme Court held that there is no federal right to have a judge accept a plea deal. The Court further clarified this point in Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1387 (2012), explicitly stating that there can be no due process claim even where “a plea deal is accepted by the defendant but rejected by the judge.” Even further, there is no constitutional claim under the same facts. Fields v. Attorney Gen. of Md., 956 F.2d 1290, 1297 n.19 (4th Cir. 1992).

Therefore, the governing law clearly states that Rodriguez, nor any other similarly-situated defendant, claims a right to have an accepted plea offer honored by a presiding judge. Rodriguez based his due process claim on the premise that such a right existed. Since the claim has no support under governing law, and because this same claim forms the basis of his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, both of his claims on appeal fail.

                                                                    Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Rodriguez’s petition under § 2254. Both the ineffective assistance of counsel and due process claims were based on the premise that a defendant has a right to have a plea deal accepted by a presiding judge. Because no such right exists, Rodriguez’s claims were properly denied.

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