Editor's Note: This opinion was originally published as RPC 129 (Second Revision).
Waiver of Appellate and Postconviction Rights in Plea Agreement
Opinion rules that prosecutors and defense attorneys may negotiate plea agreements in which appellate and postconviction rights are waived, except in regard to allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel or prosecutorial misconduct.
Attorney A represents Client C in regard to several serious federal criminal charges. In the process of plea negotiations, the government, through Government Attorney B, has offered to dismiss all but one of the charges in return for Client C's waiver of all appellate and postconviction remedies. Under the terms of the proposed agreement, the sentencing decision will be made by the court, after acceptance of the plea, in accordance with applicable federal sentencing guidelines.
May Attorney A and Government Attorney B ethically execute a plea agreement in which Client C's rights to appellate and postconviction review are waived?
Yes, except to the extent that the plea agreement purports to waive defendant's rights to appellate and postconviction remedies based on allegations of (a) ineffective assistance of counsel or (b) prosecutorial misconduct.
Whether a plea agreement is constitutional and otherwise lawful is a question to be determined by the courts. Whether the conduct of attorneys with respect to a plea agreement is ethical is a question addressed concurrently to the courts and the State Bar.
As a general proposition, the execution of a lawful plea agreement by North Carolina attorneys does not appear to contravene the Rules of Professional Conduct. Indeed, the negotiation and execution of such an agreement by the prosecutor and defense attorney may well serve the administration of justice and, on balance, be in the best interest of the defendant. Rules 1.2(d) and 7.1(a) and (b).
Attorney A must recognize that, on occasion, waiver of appellate and postconviction rights may result in unreviewable error. Thus, Attorney A has a duty to explain to Client C the effect and possible consequences of the proposed plea agreement (including any inability to predict with confidence the sentence to be imposed or the likelihood of a sentencing error). Rule 6(b)(2). Having done so, Attorney A must abide by the client's decision concerning the plea agreement. Rule 7.1(c).
However, the waiver of rights arising from the ineffective assistance of counsel or prosecutorial misconduct appears to be, and shall prospectively be deemed to be, in conflict with the ethical duties expressed or implied in the rules. Under the rules, Attorney A has an obligation to represent Client C zealously and competently, and Government Attorney B has special responsibilities relating to his conduct in office. Rules 6, 7.1, and 7.3. Attorneys are expressly prohibited from making agreements prospectively limiting their liability for malpractice. Rule 5.8. Even if the plea agreement would not waive Client C's right to assert grievances against Attorney A or Government Attorney B or the right to sue Attorney A for malpractice, those sanctions may be hollow and ineffective remedies for the incarcerated Client C and insufficient to assure compliance with the rules. In the context of a criminal case, a logical and appropriate interpretation of the rules is a prohibition against agreements waiving the clientright to complain about an attorney's incompetent representation or misconduct. Moreover, an agreement waiving the right of Client C to complain about the conduct of either Attorney A or Government Attorney B may have the appearance or effect of serving the lawyer's own interests in contravention of Rule 5.1(b). In any event, the effective enforcement of the rules relating to the responsibilities of Attorney A and Government Attorney B requires that they not execute a plea agreement waiving appellate or postconviction rights or remedies based on allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel or prosecutorial misconduct.
1. In the case of a direct conflict between the State Bar rules and the rules of the federal court, the latter would prevail under the federal supremacy doctrine. The Rules of Professional Conduct have been adopted and incorporated by reference in the local rules of practice and procedure of the United States District Courts in this state. See Eastern District Rule 2.10, Middle District Rule 505 and Western District Rule l(a).
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