Friday, February 23rd, 2018

Guilty Pleas Do Not Bar Appeals Challenging the Constitutionality of the Statute of Conviction

The Supreme Court held this week, in Class v. United States, that a guilty plea does not inherently bar a defendant from arguing on appeal that the statute of conviction violates the Constitution.  Amy Baron-Evans of the Sentencing Resource Counsel has the details:

The Supreme Court held in Class v. United States that a guilty plea does not inherently waive a constitutional challenge to the statute of conviction. Justice Breyer wrote for the majority of six (joined by Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, Roberts, Gorsuch), and Justice Alito wrote the dissent (joined by Kennedy and Thomas).

Class was indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia for possessing firearms in his locked jeep in a parking lot on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, in violation of 40 USC 5104(e)(1). He moved to dismiss the indictment, claiming that “the statute violates [1] the Second Amendment and [2] the Due Process Clause because it fails to give fair notice of which areas fall within the Capitol Grounds where firearms are banned.”

The district court rejected both challenges. Class pled guilty pursuant to a written plea agreement, in which he expressly waived certain claims including “most collateral attacks on the conviction,” but the agreement “said nothing about the right to raise on direct appeal a claim that the statute of conviction was unconstitutional.” When Class raised his challenges on direct appeal, the D.C. Circuit held that he had inherently waived them by pleading guilty.

The Supreme Court held that a guilty plea by itself does not bar a defendant from challenging the constitutionality of the statute of conviction. This holding “flows directly” from the Court’s prior decisions. The Court relied primarily on Blackledge v. Perry, 417 U.S. 21 (1974), a habeas case in which the Court held that Perry’s guilty plea did not bar his vindictive prosecution claim, and Menna v. New York, 423 U.S. 61 (1975) (per curiam), a direct appeal in which the Court held that Menna did not waive his double jeopardy claim by pleading guilty. In these cases, as in Class, the constitutional claims are consistent with an “admission that [the defendant] did what the indictment alleged”; they challenge the government’s “power to criminalize Class’ (admitted) conduct.”

The Court acknowledges that in addition to claims that challenge factual guilt or “contradict admissions necessarily made upon entry of a voluntary plea of guilty,” a guilty plea foregoes rights accompanying a fair trial, including the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination, the right to jury trial, the right to confront accusers, and claims of government misconduct “before the plea is entered,” but not rights that exist beyond the trial like the right against self-incrimination at sentencing in Mitchell v. United States.

The Court rejects the government’s and dissent’s argument that its holding is inconsistent with Rule 11(a)(2), governing conditional pleas. Rule 11(a)(2) is not the exclusive procedure for preserving a constitutional claim, and the advisory committee notes say the rule has no bearing on claims that may be raised under the Menna-Blackledge doctrine.

The Court does not distinguish between facial and as-applied challenges. Class’s Second Amendment claim was apparently facial and the Due Process claim apparently as-applied, but the Court makes no mention of this distinction. Also note that Class involves a claim raised on direct appeal, but it should apply as well to claims raised on collateral review that were not expressly waived. One of the two key cases upon which Class relies — Blackledge — involved a claim raised on collateral review.

Unfortunately, if your client enters into a plea agreement that broadly waives his or her right to challenge a conviction, such that it encompasses a constitutional challenge to the statute of conviction, Class is likely no help. It holds only that a guilty plea in itself does not waive a right to constitutionally challenge the statute of conviction. Consider a conditional plea if you know you plan to raise a constitutional challenge to the statute of conviction. But you never know what grounds may arise later. If you can, avoid broad waiver language, or try to carve out constitutional challenges to the statute of conviction. Also note that Class doesn’t change the fact that the defendant must preserve the issue in district court to avoid plain error on appeal and procedural default on collateral review.

Posted by
Categories: guilty plea
Comments are closed.