25 Years for $473 Bad Check Reversed

A Hanford man, sentenced in 2006 to 25 years to life in prison for writing a $473 bad check, has won the right to a hearing to show his attorney acted incompetently when he recommended rejection of a six-year plea bargain.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that, if the claims are true, not only was his lawyer’s failure to warn him of the potential sentencing risks erroneous “but egregious, considering the discrepancy between the plea offer and [his] sentencing exposure.”

Tyrone Miles says his lawyer, Laurence Meyer, encouraged him to reject the prosecutor’s offer of six years in prison in exchange for a plea bargain.  Miles also maintained that the lawyer “never mentioned that he was exposed to a three strikes sentence of 25 years to life,” according to Judge Betty Fletcher.

The state appeals court, the California Supreme Court and a federal trial judge all rejected his appeal.  Despite that record, the 9th Circuit, three-judge panel, reversed and sent the case back to the trial judge to reconsider.  “This is not a close case – according to Miles’s allegations, Meyer performed deficiently,” Fletcher wrote.

Fletcher said the U.S. Supreme Court has held that Constitutional fair trial rights and effective counsel rights extend to the plea bargaining stage.

Fletcher said Miles had alleged facts that establish a colorable claim of ineffective assistance and he is entitled to a hearing to show that.

Miles Record

Miles was a Navy veteran deployed three times to the Persian Gulf, including during Operation Desert Storm.  But he developed signs of depression, anxiety and drug abuse.

In 1993, while drunk and on drugs he acted as a lookout for friends who robbed a store.  He did it again five days later in another robbery, according to the court. He was caught, pled guilty and served three years in prison.

On his release he remained addicted to methamphetamines and his financial situation deteriorated.  He lived near his parents in a neighborhood where people often cashed fictitious checks at cooperating convenience stores.  The people passing the check paid a fee and repaid the store later to cover the bad checks, according to the court.

Miles joined in the practice in 2004, but for one check of $473 Miles failed to repay the owner.

He was arrested for passing three bad checks in a two-day period and burglary.  The  charges also said Miles’ two prior crimes were “strikes” under California’s three strikes law, making him liable for 25 years to life for a third strike – the bad check charges.

The Lawyer

Miles argued that Meyer, told him prosecutor’s offered a plea deal of six years, but Meyer “encouraged Miles to allow him to reject the offer and negotiate further.”

“Taking the allegations as true, we conclude defense counsel’s failure to warn Miles was not only erroneious, but egregious, considering the discrepancy between the plea offer and Miles’s sentencing exposure,” Fletcher said.

The state prosecutors argued that Miles’s claim is “implausible” and it is “extremely unlikely” Meyer could have performed so deficiently.  But the court took that as a basic concession that if Miles’s allegations were true, he has a case for deficient performance.

Meyer had a duty to understand that the complaint facially alleged two prior strikes, and a duty to tell Miles of the possible consequences.  “Meyer’s failure to read the complaint and communicate its contents to Miles before advising him to reject a plea offer falls below an objective standard of reasonableness,” the panel concluded.

Fletcher pointed out that the California Supreme Court did not explain its reason for rejection of Miles’s habeas petition, but summarily rejected his claims in a one sentence order.

“We hold that under the circumstances presented here, remand for an evidentiary hearing is not only permitted but required,” she said. Whether the claims are true or not, is not known, but they are plausible and if true, Miles has a claim for habeas relief.

Joining Fletcher are Judges Procter Hug and Richard Paez.

Case: Miles v. Martel, No. 10-15633



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