Frank Martin pled guilty to all five counts of his federal indictment, charging him with distributing crack cocaine and gun possession, apparently under the mistaken impression that he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and an advisory guideline sentence of 15-20 years. In fact, because his crimes triggered the Armed Career Criminal Act, as well as the mandatorily-consecutive provisions of the federal gun laws, he faced a mandatory minimum 20 years – twice the minimum he had anticipated. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 20 years. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the sentence in United States v. Martin, issued on May 13, 2013, despite the fact that not only had his defense lawyer misadvised him of the applicable penalties, but so too had the judge at his change-of-plea hearing.

Applying plain error review, as Martin had not challenges these errors at the district court level, the Court found the district court’s failure to notify Martin of the 15-year mandatory minimum on one count did not affect Martin’s substantial rights, because the court “sentenced Martin to a total of 20 years, a term below the recommended guidelines range and one which Martin’s counsel requested at sentencing,” and Martin’s opening appellate brief was “devoid of any showing that but for the Rule 11 violation, he would not have pleaded guilty.”

In addition, “[t]he record here provide[d] no support for Martin’s claim of ineffective assistance,” where Martin failed to raise the issue at the district court level and cannot raise it on direct appeal when the “claims require development of the facts outside the original record.”

The case illustrates the elementary importance of researching and informing the defendant of his sentencing exposure on a guilty plea. As the Supreme Court acknowledged last year in two important cases that held a defendant had a right to effective assistance of counsel in the plea bargaining process, the criminal code grants the prosecutor enormous plea bargaining power. Justice Kennedy commented in his majority opinion in Missouri v. Frye, “the longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes,” and Justice Scalia added the observation in his dissent in Lafler v. Cooper, that “plea-bargaining a-plenty . . . presents grave risks of prosecutorial over-charging.” Once the defendant has entered a guilty plea, however, his plea bargaining leverage has been forfeited, and it is a rare instance when the defendant will be permitted to withdraw a guilty plea.