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.

Crime Rate Falls In 2017

A year-end analysis of by the Brennan Center for Justice, titled Crime in 2017: Updated Analysis, directly undercuts any claims that there is a nationwide crime wave.  According to the report, “[a]ll measures of crime in the 30 largest American cities—the overall crime rate, violent crime rate, and murder rate—are estimated to decline in 2017,” although there are some cities where violence has increased, like Chicago and Charlotte.   Here are some key findings of the Brennan Center’s analysis:

  • The overall crime rate in the 30 largest cities in 2017 is estimated to decline slightly from 2016, falling by 2.7 percent.
  • The violent crime rate will also decrease slightly, by 1.1 percent, essentially remaining stable.
  • The 2017 murder rate in the 30 largest cities is estimated to decline by 5.6 percent. Large decreases this year in Chicago (down 11.9 percent) and Detroit (down 9.8 percent), as well as small decreases in other cities, contributed to this decline. New York City’s murder rate will also decline again, to 3.3 killings per 100,000 people.
  • Some cities are projected to see their murder rates rise, including Charlotte (54.6 percent) and Baltimore (11.3 percent).

Federal Civil Rights Commission Supports Bipartisan Sentencing Reform Bill

On October 13, 2017, the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a Statement supporting certain provisions in the Senate’s bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017.  The bill proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent offenses, restore judicial discretion in sentencing in more cases, move sentencing levels down in many cases so that low-level crimes are adequately but not excessively punished, and make retroactive sentencing reductions in crimes involving crack cocaine prior to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chair Catherine E. Lhamon said,

The sentencing reduction provisions in this legislation are necessary to hew closer  to the fair administration of justice in our country, and ensure that the criminal justice system does not more harshly judge marginalized communities without basis. I urge Congress to take swift action to correct these injustices.

Established in 1957 by the Civil Rights Act, the Commission on Civil Rights is the only independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with advising the President and Congress on civil rights matters and issuing an annual federal civil rights enforcement report.

U. S. Commission On Civil Rights Calls For Sentence Reform

On October 13, 2017, the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a Statement supporting certain provisions in the Senate’s bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017.  The bill proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent offenses, restore judicial discretion in sentencing in more cases, move sentencing levels down in many cases so that low-level crimes are adequately but not excessively punished, and make retroactive sentencing reductions in crimes involving crack cocaine prior to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chair Catherine E. Lhamon said,

The sentencing reduction provisions in this legislation are necessary to hew closer  to the fair administration of justice in our country, and ensure that the criminal justice system does not more harshly judge marginalized communities without basis. I urge Congress to take swift action to correct these injustices.

Established in 1957 by the Civil Rights Act, the Commission on Civil Rights is the only independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with advising the President and Congress on civil rights matters and issuing an annual federal civil rights enforcement report.

Former U. S. Attorneys Take Stand Against AG Sessions’ War on Reasonableness

In a September 12th article from the National Review, entitled On Criminal Justice, Sessions Is Returning DOJ to the Failed Policies of the Past, two former U.S. Attorneys (Joyce Vance, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, and Carter Stewart, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio) contend that Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III’s charging and sentencing policies will not fix the complex problems that plague our justice system.

Those polices, established on May 10, 2017, direct prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” and then “disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences” and “seek a reasonable sentence under the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.”  Vance and Carter argue that “this one-size-fits-all policy” does not work and “will roll back previously instituted changes that were beginning to reduce America’s prison population, the justice system’s costs, and crime.”

For a copy of the article, click here.   For a copy of the Attorney General’s May 10th charging policy, click here.  For charging and sentencing policies from previous Attorneys General, click here.