Friday, September 15th, 2006

Guilty Plea in State Court Does Not Necessarily “Waive” Fourth Amendment Claim in Later Federal Prosecution Arising from Same Incident

United States v. Gregg, Docket No. 03-1229-cr (2d Cir. Sep. 12, 2006) (Feinberg, Sotomayor, Hall) (per curiam): This decision nicely explains the meaning and consequences of a guilty plea for subsequent proceedings arising from the same incident. The Court correctly rejects the district court’s broad-brush ruling that Gregg’s guilty plea in state court to a misdemeanor involving the misuse of his mother’s reduced-fare Metrocard effectively waived his right to challenge the lawfulness of the stop that lead to his arrest (and the recovery of a firearm) in a subsequent federal prosecution for being a felon-in-possession. While a guilty plea “conclusively establishes” the defendant’s guilt, it does not necessarily extinguish all related issues; on the contrary, whether the plea forecloses a future cause of action or legal claim depends primarily on principles of collateral estoppel.

The essential facts are these. Police officers at a subway station saw Gregg going through a subway turnstile using a Metrocard. A “red light” signal was lit, indicating the use of a reduced-fare Metrocard (“issued only to the elderly or the disabled”). Gregg appeared neither elderly nor disabled. The police approached Gregg on the platform, asked for his Metrocard, saw his mother’s name and photo on the card, and arrested him. A gun was recovered from Gregg as a result.

Gregg was charged in state court with criminal possession of a gun, but the grand jury refused to indict (what’s not to love about the Bronx!). Eventually, Gregg disposed of the state case by pleading guilty to a charge of “criminal impersonation” and serving 15 days in the can.

Unfortunately, the federal grand jury was not as charitable as its Bronx counterpart and subsequently indicted Gregg under § 922(g)(1) as a felon in possession of a firearm. Gregg moved to suppress the gun, claiming that the police had no reasonable suspicion to stop him in the first place. The district court denied the motion, (badly mis)reading the caselaw as holding that a guilty plea extinguishes all subsequent Fourth Amendment challenges, regardless of the particular context.

The Circuit held that the district court erred in so ruling but upheld the denial of the suppression motion, anyway, because, allegedly, “undisputed facts in the record indicate the police officers stopped Gregg and questioned him regarding his apparently unjustified use of a disability Metrocard. Such facts are sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion under Terry.” Op.10. (I am always skeptical when the Court affirms on a ground not reached below, but since I do not quite understand what the Court is actually saying, or all of the facts, no further explanation will be offered on this alternative holding.)

In any event, the Circuit clarifies that a guilty plea does not constitute, as a general matter, a broad waiver of all legal claims arising from the same incident. Rather, a valid guilty plea simply constitutes conclusive evidence of factual guilt. Thus, a defendant who pleads guilty may not raise a Fourth Amendment claim on appeal not because he has waived this claim, but because it is irrelevant to the validity of the conviction challenged on appeal — “how the supporting evidence was recovered is irrelevant” to the fact of the defendant’s guilt. As the Supreme Court explained in Menna v. New York, 423 U.S. 61, 62 n.2 (1975), a guilty plea “renders irrelevant those constitutional violations not logically inconsistent with the valid establishment of factual guilt and which do not stand in the way of conviction if factual guilt is validly established.”

Thus, in Haring v. Prosise, 462 U.S. 306, 321 (1983), the Supreme Court held that a defendant’s earlier guilty plea to manufacturing drugs in state court did not bar him from later filing a § 1983 claim against the law enforcement officers who searched his apartment (and found the drugs). This was so because the guilty plea (1) did not involve any actual litigation over the legality of the search of Prosise’s apartment; (2) the criminal proceeding did not decide any issue upon which Prosise must prevail in his § 1983 action; and (3) it was not established that any of the issues in the § 1983 action could have been “necessarily” determined in the criminal proceeding. Op. 7. The Circuit read Prosise to mean that “the preclusive effect of a guilty plea entered in state court upon subsequent federal proceedings is determined on the basis of collateral estoppel and the full faith and credit statute.” Op. 8.

Applying Prosise, the Circuit found that the “legality of the firearm seizure simply was not at issue when Gregg pleaded guilty to criminal impersonation” by using his mom’s Metrocard. Op. 9. Thus, the earlier plea did not bar him from challenging the recovery of the gun on Fourth Amendment grounds in the federal prosecution

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