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SCOTUS: Guilty plea doesn’t forfeit challenge to constitutionality of statute of conviction on appeal

Rodney Class v. United States, USSC No. 16-424, 2018 WL 987347 (February 21, 2018), reversing United States v. Class, (unreported) (D.C. Cir. 2016); Scotusblog page (inlcuding links to briefs and commentary)

“The question [in this case] is whether a guilty plea by itself bars a federal criminal defendant from challenging the constitutionality of the statute of conviction on direct appeal. We hold that it does not. Class did not relinquish his right to appeal the District Court’s constitutional determinations simply by pleading guilty.” (Slip op. at 3).

Class had a gun in his locked car, which was parked in a lot on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Possessing a gun on the Capitol grounds is prohibited by 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e)(1). Class pleaded guilty after the district court judge rejected his claims that the statute violates the Second Amendment and that his due process right to notice was denied because there is no sign in the lot warning about the law. His appealed the trial court’s denial of his constitutional claims, but the court of appeals refused to address them, saying they were forfeited by pleading guilty. (Slip op. at 1-3).

A 6-Justice majority of the Court holds that Class’s guilty plea didn’t automatically forfeit his right to appeal at least some of his constitutional claims. This conclusion, the majority says, “flows directly from this Court’s prior decisions.” (Slip op. at 3). Those prior decisions are Blackledge v. Perry, 417 U.S. 21, 30-31 (1974), which held that a claim of vindictive prosecution is not waived by a guilty plea, and Menna v. New York, 423 U.S. 61, 62 n.2 (1975), which extended Blackledge’s exception to double jeopardy claims. (Slip op. at 3-5).

The basic rationale of the Menna-Blackledge doctrine is that a guilty plea can’t waive a challenge that goes to the power of the state to prosecute and punish the defendant for the crime, a point evident from United States v. Broce, 488 U.S. 563, 569 (1989), which characterized the doctrine as allowing a claim to be raised on appeal despite a guilty plea “where on the face of the record the court had no power to enter the conviction or impose the sentence.” (Slip op. at 6).

Unlike the claims in Broce [where the defendants raised a dispute about the facts and sought to introduce new evidence after the plea], Class’ constitutional claims here, as we understand them, do not contradict the terms of the indictment or the written plea agreement. They are consistent with Class’ knowing, voluntary, and intelligent admission that he did what the indictment alleged. Those claims can be “resolved without any need to venture beyond that record.” Id., at 575.

Nor do Class’ claims focus upon case-related constitutional defects that “‘occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea.’” Blackledge, 417 U. S., at 30. They could not, for example, “have been ‘cured’ through a new indictment by a properly selected grand jury.” Ibid. …. Because the defendant has admitted the charges against him, a guilty plea makes the latter kind of constitutional claim “irrelevant to the constitutional validity of the conviction.” Haring v. Prosise, 462 U. S. 306, 321 (1983). But the cases to which we have referred make clear that a defendant’s guilty plea does not make irrelevant the kind of constitutional claim Class seeks to make. (Slip op. at 6-7).

The end result is good for Class, no doubt; but the majority’s opinion leaves some unanswered questions, even if it’s not quite as “incoheren[t]” or “muddle[d]” as alleged by the lengthy dissent (Alito, joined by Thomas and Kennedy).

First, the decision offers no doctrinal rationale for the exceptions recognized in MennaBlackledge, and now this case. Is the exception grounded in the Constitution? A federal statute? The common law? The majority never says, though its partial reliance on some 19th century state court decisions (slip op. at 5-6) suggests the last of those three plays the greatest role, and that the core of the common law rule is the nature of the challenge being made, i.e., that the challenge is to “the very power” to prosecute the defendant for his conduct.

Second, the majority’s reasoning about the survival of challenges to the power of the state to prosecute certainly applies to Class’s Second Amendment claim; but the Court also refers a few times to Class’s “claims” not being forfeited, most crucially in its final statement that “Class may pursue his constitutional claims on direct appeal.” (Slip op. at 11). Class’s other constitutional claim, his due process notice claim, is an as-applied challenge, not a claim the statute he was prosecuted under is invalid. Does that survive, too? Perhaps, if it doesn’t require the reviewing court to “venture beyond the record”; but it’s not clear.

Third, the majority appears to recognize that the constitutional challenges at issue could have been waived as part of a plea agreement, as it reviews the plea agreement and plea colloquy in this case and concludes Class “neither expressly nor implicitly waived his right to appeal” them. (Slip op. at 2-3, 10-11). The decision notes that certain constitutional claims are always waived by a valid guilty plea—namely, the constitutional guarantees provided in a fair trial and “the constitutionality of case-related government conduct that takes place before the plea is entered” (e.g., the validity of a search or seizure or a confession)—but that the usual guilty plea colloquy regarding the waiver of those rights doesn’t automatically extend to the kind of challenges Class is making here. (Slip op. at 7-8). Yet it doesn’t explicitly hold challenges like Class’s may be waived or what the waiver must look like to be valid. In the short run, federal prosecutors may well write more specific appellate waivers into plea agreements and district courts may be more thorough in reviewing what is being waived when taking a guilty plea. That may already be the practice in the circuits that have previously held that claims like Class’s aren’t necessarily waived by a guilty plea. (The Seventh is one of those circuits: United States v. Phillips, 645 F.3d 859, 863 (7th Cir. 2011) (holding facial challenges to a statute survive a guilty plea, while as-applied challenges do not).)

Finally, does this decision apply only to federal defendants? Again, the Court doesn’t say, and the absence of a doctrinal basis means it’s not clear. However, Wisconsin has long recognized that facial constitutional challenges to a statute (like Class’s Second Amendment claim) survive a guilty plea. State v. Olson, 127 Wis. 2d 412, 420, 380 N.W.2d 375 (Ct. App. 1985); State v. Trochinski, 2002 WI 56, ¶34 n. 15, 253 Wis. 2d 38, 644 N.W.2d 891. As-applied challenges are forfeited, so under Wisconsin law Class’s due process notice claim wouldn’t survive his plea, as it involves a challenge to something other than “the face of the statute.” Olson, 127 Wis. 2d at 420; State v. Molitor, 210 Wis. 2d 415, 419, 565 N.W.2d 248 (Ct. App. 1997). As noted, it’s not entirely clear whether Class’s due process notice challenge survived his plea, and if so, why, so this decision doesn’t appear to invalidate our rule about the forfeiture of as-applied challenges.

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