Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Riggs v. Fairman (9th Cir. - March 7, 2005)

It's rare that I can't figure out which side I agree with. But that's in fact the case with this opinion.

Michael Riggs is hungry and homeless when he's charged with petty theft for shoplifting a bottle of vitamins. The prosecutor offers him a five-year deal, but Riggs' attorney thinks they can do a lot better at trial, so Riggs rejects the deal. But Riggs' counsel offers this advice without knowing Riggs' prior history and without telling Riggs -- because she didn't know it herself -- that because Riggs has a record, he's subject to a mandatory term of 25 to life if convicted. Which he totally will be, since the evidence against him is overwhelming.

Everyone on the panel agrees that Riggs obtained ineffective assistance of counsel. The only question is the remedy. California refuses to offer the original deal; at this point, they've decided to stick it to Riggs. Judge Rawlinson (alongside Judge Trott) concludes that the district court could permissibly merely let Riggs go to trial again, at which point he'll clearly be convicted and sentenced to 25 to life. Some victory. Judge Bea dissents and argues that since it's totally clear (which it is) that Riggs would have accepted the offer if he had competent counsel, the district court should have ordered the prosecution to offer the original deal. Which we sometimes do.

The reason that I think I can't decide which side I'm on is partially due to the sharply divergent factual claims that surround the original plea agreement. Judge Rawlinson claims that the only reason the prosecutor made the original plea offer is because she (like defense counsel) also didn't know that Riggs could be charged under the Three Strikes law. If that's the case, I somewhat sympathize with the district court's view that Riggs should not get the benefit of the prosecutor's error. Sure, if he'd have had competent counsel, he would have gotten this benefit. And, sure, only the defendant (not the state) has a constitutional right to competent counsel. But it still seems a bit unfair, and on the remedy side, I just don't know if Riggs is really constitutionally entitled to such a benefit.

By contrast, Judge Bea makes a darn good case that Judge Rawlinson's interpretation of the facts is inaccurate -- that the prosecutor wasn't mistaken about the law and that the only reason the state refuses to offer Riggs the original deal is because Riggs had the temerity (based upon the flawed advice of his counsel) to reject the initial offer. If that's the case, I have no problem with compelling the prosecution to reoffer the deal.

So the question really boils down, in my mind, to which side you believe is more faithful to the facts: Judges Rawlinson and Trott or Judge Bea. Without reading the record, I just can't be sure. I was on board for Judge Rawlinson's view before I read Judge Bea's dissent. It seemed like an easy case. Now I'm much less confident that Judge Rawlinson gets it right.

A toughie.