Guilty Pleas and Appeals

This was a 6-3 decision out of the United States Supreme Court.  The issue, at first glance, is seemingly straightforward, but upon reading the dissent, it is clear that the issue is a lot more complicated.  Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch joined.  Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Kennedy and Thomas joined.

The underlying facts were these.  Rodney class was indicted by a federal grand jury for possessing firearms in his Jeep, which was parked in a lot on Capitol grounds.  Federal law says, “An individual . . . may not carry . . . on the Ground or in any of the Capitol Buildings a firearm.”

Class represented himself in the District Court.  Originally, he challenged that the law violated his Second Amendment right, and he raised a due process claim that he was denied notice of the weapons ban.  The District Court denied these challenges, so Class ultimately pleaded guilty under a plea agreement that said nothing about the right to file an appeal that the statute he was convicted under was unconstitutional.

The question before the Court, therefore, was this: does a guilty plea by itself bar a federal criminal defendant from challenging the constitutionality of the statute of conviction on direct appeal?  The Court held that it did not, and it reasoned that that conclusion flowed directly from its prior precedents.  Because Class challenged the Government’s power to criminalize his conduct, thereby calling into question the Government’s power to “constitutionally prosecute” him, Class’s guilty plead did not bar a direct appeal under these circumstances.

Justice Alito authored a sharp dissent, which criticized the Court for raising more questions than it provided clear answers.  He began his dissent accordingly:

Roughly 95% of felony cases in the federal and state courts are resolved by guilty pleas. Therefore it is critically important that defendants, prosecutors, and judges understand the consequences of these pleas. In this case, the parties have asked us to identify the claims that a defendant can raise on appeal after entering an unconditional guilty plea. Regrettably, the Court provides no clear answer.

By my count, the Court identifies no fewer than five rules for ascertaining the issues that can be raised. According to the Court, a defendant who pleads guilty may assert on appeal (1) a claim that “implicates ‘the very power of the State’ to prosecute [him],” (2) a claim that does not contradict the facts alleged in the charging document, (3) a claim that “‘the facts alleged and admitted do not constitute a crime,’ ” and (4) claims other than “case-related constitutional defects that ‘occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea.’” In addition, the Court suggests (5) that such a defendant may not be able to assert a claim that “contradict[s] the terms of . . . [a] written plea agreement,” but whether this rule applies when the claim falls into one of the prior four categories is left unclear. How these rules fit together is anybody’s guess. And to make matters worse, the Court also fails to make clear whether its holding is based on the Constitution or some other ground.

 

Personally, I tend to agree with Justice Alito.  The Court’s holding raised more questions than it did provide answers as to what qualifies as a claim that is proper for appeal after a guilty plea.  If the criteria is that the claim must call into question the Government’s power to “constitutionally prosecute” the defendant, that leaves a lot of room for argument as to what that exactly means.  Suffice it to say for now, though, sticking to the facts of this case, it seems apparent that a federal criminal defendant may plead guilty, thus admit that his conduct matches the elements of the crime he is prosecuted for, but afterward challenge the very statute as unconstitutional and an unlawful attempt at criminalization of a constitutionally protected activity (in this instance, bearing arms).  That, of course, presumes there is no language in his plea agreement that explicitly waives the defendant’s right to do so.