SCOTUS Levels The Plea Playing Field

On February 21, 2018, in Class v. United States, No. 16-424(link is external), the Supreme Court addressed whether a guilty plea bars a criminal defendant from later appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute of conviction violates the Constitution. Class was charged with possessing firearms on the grounds of the United States Capitol, in violation of 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e)(1)(“An individual . . . may not carry . . . on the Grounds or in any of the Capitol Buildings a firearm”). In the district court, Class challenged the statute as violating the Second Amendment and also argued that he was denied fair notice that weapons were banned in the parking lot on the grounds of the Capitol. The district court rejected both claims. Pursuant to a written plea agreement, Class pled guilty, waiving several categories of rights. The agreement said nothing about the right to raise on direct appeal that the statute of conviction was unconstitutional. On appeal, Class repeated his constitutional claims. The appellate court held that Class could not raise his constitutional claims because, by pleading guilty, he had waived them.

In a 6 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that a guilty plea does not inherently waive a constitutional challenge to the statute of conviction. The Court stated that the holding “flows directly” from the Court’s prior decisions. The Court rejected the dissent’s argument that its holding was inconsistent with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(a)(2), governing conditional pleas. The Court found that Rule 11(a)(2) does not indicate whether it sets forth the exclusive procedure for a defendant to preserve a constitutional claim following a guilty plea. Looking to the Advisory Committee Notes, the Rule’s drafters acknowledged that Rule 11(a)(2) “has no application” to certain kinds of constitutional objections. Finally, the Court did not distinguish between a facial constitutional challenge to the statute and an as-applied constitutional challenge to the statute.