Thursday, May 18, 2017

Supreme Court update: Does a guilty plea prevent an attack on the constitutionality of the statute of conviction?

One of the few criminal related cases set for argument on the October docket is Class v. United States, a case that asks whether a guilty plea prevents the defendant from attacking the constitutionality of the statute of conviction. Or, as the brief for Mr. Class states the issue:
Whether a guilty plea inherently waives defendant’s right to challenge the constitutionality of his statute of conviction. 
Mr. Class was convicted of carrying or having a gun readily accessible on the Capitol grounds. He initially litigated the constitutionality of the statute in district court, without success. He eventually entered a plea agreement that waived his right to appeal the sentence and his right to collaterally attack his conviction or sentence. He appealed to the D.C. Circuit which affirmed his conviction based on the plea waiver. The D.C. Circuit noted the appeal waiver did not contain an "explicit waiver of appeal rights . . . as to alleged errors in the indictment or in proceedings before the sentencing." However, the court held that the plea itself inherently waived Mr. Class' right to attack the constitutionality of the statute.

In his brief, Mr. Class argues that prior Supreme Court cases such as Blackledge v. Perry and Menna v. New York answer the question as to whether the plea inherently waives such a right - and the answer is no. Blackledge permitted such an attack after conviction in the double jeopardy realm and Menna allowed such an attack in a vindictive prosecution claim. If permitted there, why should the defendant be limited when the attack is for unconstitutionality of the statute of conviction?

With all of the recent discussion of plea waivers we had here, and here this case is a good reminder of what rights are lost when a guilty plea is entered. It will be interesting to keep an eye on the outcome of this case and see to what extent a plea really waives appellate rights. Plus it is a gun rights case so we know a separate opinion from Justice Thomas is coming.

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