Does a guilty plea inherently waive a defendant’s right to challenge the constitutionality of the statute underlying his conviction unless that right is explicitly preserved in the plea agreement?
This case will allow the Supreme Court to clarify the appellate rights of criminal defendants who have pled guilty and subsequently want to challenge the constitutionality of their statute of conviction. Circuit courts have been divided on the subject. Petitioner, Class, argues that the Court should apply the precedent set in Blackledge v. Perry and Menna v. New York to his case by holding that constitutional challenge claims do not challenge a defendant’s factual guilt or dispute whether the government met every burden of proving each element of the crime, and therefore are not precluded by pleading guilty. Respondent, the United States, argues that a constitutional challenge to a defendant’s statute of conviction is inherently waived in a guilty plea as an aspect of his factual guilt unless it is expressly preserved in his plea agreement. With this decision, the Supreme Court will determine the constitutional rights of all criminal defendants who plead guilty and likely impact the role guilty pleas play in United States jurisprudence.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether a guilty plea inherently waives defendant’s right to challenge the constitutionality of his statute of conviction.
On May 30, 2013, Petitioner Rodney Class (“Class”) parked his Jeep, which contained guns and ammunition, in a parking lot located on the Capitol grounds on the 200 block of Maryland Avenue, SW in Washington D.C. While Class visited the Capitol buildings, a police officer noticed a Jeep without the permit required to park in the lot and saw a blade and gun holster inside. Upon Class’s return, Class told the officers that he owned the Jeep and that it contained weapons for which he had legal permits. The officers transported Class to Capitol Police headquarters and obtained a search warrant for the Jeep. After searching the car, police discovered three guns and ammunition.
On September 3, 2013, a grand jury indicted Class for violating 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e), which prohibits any individual from carrying or having accessible to them a firearm on Capitol Grounds or in any Capitol Building, and D.C. Code § 224504(a), although the latter charge was subsequently dismissed. Class chose to represent himself and filed thirty-six motions, raising the claim that § 5104(e) violates individuals’ Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, along with a due process lack of notice claim. The court ordered the government to file a responsive pleading on the Second Amendment issue but ultimately denied all of Class’s motions, holding that weapons should presumptively be banned from a government parking lot, like from a government building. ;
Class failed to appear at trial after notifying the court that he would do so, and subsequently pled guilty to the § 5104(e) charge. During Class’s November 21, 2014 Plea Hearing, the District Court informed Class that by pleading guilty without invoking Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(a)(2), he would lose all rights to an appeal save for the ability to appeal a conviction if his guilty plea was unlawful or involuntary, if there was a fundamental defect in the guilty-plea proceedings, or if Class claimed the sentence was illegal. Class consented to these terms and was convicted in district court.
Four days later, Class appealed to the D.C. Circuit, focusing on the violation of his Second Amendment rights. Class used the court-appointed amicus counsel’s arguments that briefed the Second Amendment and Due Process challenges that Class had made in district court. The government responded by arguing that because Class did not invoke Rule 11(a)(2), his plea inherently waived his right to raise any constitutional claims accrued before he pled guilty. Class cited Blackledge v. Perry and Menna v. New York in reply, claiming that these cases established that a guilty-pleading criminal defendant still reserves the right to appeal the constitutionality of his statute of conviction.
After oral argument, the Circuit Court agreed with the government’s argument and affirmed the district court’s ruling. Relying on the precedent set in United States v. Delgado-Garcia and Tollett v. Henderson, the court held that Class’s claims of constitutional and statutory error were not properly before the court because Class did not invoke his Rule 11(a)(2) right to appeal an adverse determination of a specified pretrial motion, and therefore cannot bring a constitutional claim on appeal because the claim does not satisfy the two excepted challenges in such a situation: “the right not to be haled into court at all” or the lower court’s “subject-matter jurisdiction over the case.”
Class appealed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine “whether petitioner is entitled to challenge the constitutionality of his statute of conviction on appeal, notwithstanding his entry of an unconditional guilty plea in which he did not seek to preserve any right to pursue such a challenge.”
CATEGORIZATION OF THE RIGHT TO CHALLENGE THE CONSTITUTIONALITY OF A STATUTE
Class argues that because pleas are contracts, the waiver of the right to challenge the constitutionality of a statute of conviction must be either explicit in the contract or the result of a default rule. Class contends that the Supreme Court has created three categories for default rules pertaining to criminal defendant’s rights in a plea. According to Class, the first category includes rights inherent in a criminal trial, such as the right to trial by jury; Class claims that case law dictates such rights are inherently waived in a plea agreement because a plea agreement necessarily means there will be no trial. Class argues that the second category includes procedural rights inherent in a criminal prosecution, but rendered irrelevant by a guilty plea; such rights include protection from reasonable search and seizure and safeguards against racial discrimination during grand jury selections. Class contends that the default rule for the second category rights is that they are essentially forfeited after a “voluntary, knowing, and intelligent guilty plea” because a defendant’s guilt is based on his plea and not on the illegal procedure. Class argues that the third category contains rights assuring that the government has the power to convict the defendant at all, including protections against double jeopardy or vindictive prosecution. . Class maintains that these rights cannot be forfeited or waived because they remain relevant to assuring that the government has the constitutional authority to prosecute the case, regardless of a defendant’s factual guilt. Class argues that the right to challenge the constitutionality of the statute of his conviction belongs in the third category, claiming that—should the statute be found unconstitutional—the government would be unable to prosecute.
The government argues that because the right at issue is not a challenge to jurisdiction, it can be legally waived or forfeited. The government disagrees with Class’s categorization of rights, citing to several cases supporting their proposition that even core constitutional rights, such as the right to challenge a statute’s constitutionality, can be waived in a plea agreement. The government also relies on several circuits that have refused to consider constitutionality issues on appeal after the defendant failed to raise the issue below.. Further, the government argues that Class’s categorization of the right to challenge the constitutionality of the statute of conviction is misplaced. . The government contends that the right at issue should be a second category right and presumed forfeited once a defendant pleads guilty.
REQUIRED PRESERVATION UNDER RULE 11(A)
Class contends that Rule 11(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure does not require that a challenge to the constitutionality of the statute of conviction be expressly preserved in the defendant’s plea. Class argues that Rule 11(a)—which requires a plea to expressly reserve any pretrial motions the defendant wishes to remain appealable with approval from the prosecutor—does not apply to challenges to the right to prosecute. Class maintains that such exclusions are necessary, otherwise defendants would be required to get the prosecutor’s approval to challenge the right to prosecute, providing the government with total leverage. Class contends that requiring the reservation of the right to challenge the constitutionality of a statute of conviction would require prosecutors to acknowledge that the statute at issue may not be constitutional. Further, Class asserts that while the advisory committee’s note regarding Rule 11(a) uses the word “jurisdictional” to describe the inherently-preserved challenges, the committee was referring to the power to prosecute, not subject matter or territorial jurisdiction issues. In support, Class cites several opinions that use an expanded definition of “jurisdiction,” including a Seventh Circuit case in which the court found that jurisdictional issues prevent a court from making a valid judgment in the case, even when factual guilt has been established. Further, Class states that his reading of “jurisdictional” within the disputed committee note is more appropriate, as the only source cited by the committee shares his broader definition. Class also argues that the lower court’s construction of the right to not be “illegally charged and brought to court” was too narrow, and that Class did not waive this right by appearing in court. Class contends that the right to challenge the constitutionality of the statute of conviction extends to both facial and as-applied challenges. In support of this position, Class points to the fact that in the cases that created the “power to prosecute” exception, the challenges sustained were as-applied.
The government counters that Rule 11(a) requires the defendant to preserve the right to challenge the underlying statute’s constitutionality in the plea agreement. The government argues that the text of the rule requires any adverse ruling on a pretrial motion regarding a procedural issue to be expressly reserved or else it is lost. In support, the government cites to several other rules requiring the defendant be notified of potential waivers during the plea process. Further, the government argues that the jurisdictional exception in the statute should be construed narrowly, as the writers of the rule preferred pleas to be final and certain. The government contends that given these considerations—along with the Committee noting that defendants should explicitly reserve any issues they would like to preserve for appeal—it is illogical to assume there is an exception for the non-jurisdictional question of the constitutionality of the statute of conviction. The government also argues that Blackledge and Menna cannot be used for analogy to the case at hand, as the underlying challenges in those cases were explicitly mentioned in the Committee’s notes on Rule 11(a), whereas issues of constitutionality were not. Further, the government notes that because a defendant pleads to both legal and factual guilt, it would be inappropriate to allow the defendant to attack his legal guilt through constitutional challenge. The government supports this position by reminding the Court that pleas are binding as long as they are “voluntary and intelligent”—and that attacking the statute undermines neither of these requirements.
PROTECTING APPELLATE RIGHTS VS. UNDERMINING THE PLEA BARGAINING SYSTEM
The Innocence Project, in support of Class, explains that because the criminal justice system predominantly consists of plea bargained cases, it is critical that defendants be allowed to challenge the constitutionality of their statute of conviction, even after pleading guilty. University of Chicago Criminal Law Professor Albert W. Alschuler (“Alschuler”) emphasizes that the right to challenge the constitutionality of one’s statute of conviction is particularly important because the constitutional validity of a statute determines whether a defendant’s actions even constitute a crime, and therefore whether the United States has criminally tried an innocent citizen. If a criminal defendant who has pled guilty is not given this opportunity, Alschuler warns that courts would be misallocating their resources by punishing noncriminal behavior and ensuring the continuing authority of a statute that prohibits citizens from exercising a constitutional right. Alschuler asserts that when one defendant is punished under an unconstitutional statute without proper recourse, society suffers because the average defendant will see less benefit in trying to exercise his constitutional rights, will forgo attempting to do so, and therefore will decrease the value of attempting this for future defendants.
The government, on the other hand, argues that Class is undermining the plea system by attempting to gain benefits from two mutually exclusive choices—taking a plea bargain and challenging his conviction. Allowing such a strategy, the government argues, would hinder the efficiency goals of plea bargaining and contradict the “core promise” of defendants’ guilty pleas. The government distinguishes Class’s case from Blackledge and Menna by noting that in those cases existing legal doctrines supported the argument that a court should never have received the cases, thus rendering any guilty plea meaningless. In contrast, the government notes, Class’s appeal challenges a statute that is currently accepted as constitutional. The government emphasizes that allowing such an appeal after a guilty plea would disrupt the plea system by contradicting the inherent finality of a guilty plea on the issues of legal and factual guilt.
DO RULE 11(A)(2) CONDITIONAL PLEAS ADEQUATELY PROTECT DEFENDANTS’ RIGHTS?
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union (“NACDL and ACLU”) contend that, because conditional plea mechanisms vary by state, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(a)(2) provides defendants with an inadequate solution to ensuring preservation of constitutional claims while pleading guilty; such claims are available only for those in certain jurisdictions, which completely disregards uniformity of the law and equality of defendants’ appellate rights. The NACDL and ACLU further assert that Rule 11(a)(2) conditional pleas are intended to benefit the courts and prosecutors, who do not commonly offer such pleas and can withhold consent to them “for any or no reason at all,” thus facilitating a system where even a willing defendant has no guarantee of an opportunity to pursue such a plea. The NACDL and ACLU maintain the view that adopting the doctrine from Blackledge and Menna would better serve the public interest because it would allow criminal defendants to plead guilty while preserving constitutional claims. Such a ruling, the NACDL and ACLU argue, would place a more adequate burden on prosecutors, rather than giving them absolute power over defendants who often have little familiarity with the law.
The government counters that Rule 11(a)(2) provides an adequate basis for the protection of a defendant’s right to challenge the constitutionality of his statute of conviction. The government explains that judicial and prosecutorial approval of conditional pleas helps ensure that any claims preserved are not frivolous or irrelevant. The government notes that there is no evidence that prosecutors refuse to consent to conditional pleas regarding the constitutionality of an underlying statute, and it cites over fifty circuit court cases involving such conditional pleas. Even if a prosecutor does not agree to a Rule 11(a)(2) conditional plea option, the government maintains, a defendant always has the opportunity to preserve his right to appeal by simply rejecting a plea bargain and going to trial. The government argues that allowing post-guilty-plea appeals beyond the conditional plea context would seriously undermine the careful balance of interests reflected in Rule 11(a)(2), such as the need for judicial finality, clarity, and efficiency. The uncertainty that would be created by allowing such appeals, the government contends, would defeat the purpose of Rule 11(a)(2) entirely.
- Daniel P. Blank, Plea Bargain Waivers Reconsidered: A Legal Pragmatist's Guide to Loss, Abandonment and Alienation, 68 Fordham L. Rev. 2011 (2000).
- Jody Godoy, Justices To Decide If Guilty Plea Ends Constitutional Claims, Law360 (Feb. 21, 2017).