536 U.S. 622 (2002), 01-595, United States v. Ruiz

Docket Nº:01-595
Citation:536 U.S. 622, 122 S.Ct. 2450, 153 L.Ed.2d 586, 70 U.S.L.W. 4677
Party Name:United States v. Ruiz
Case Date:June 24, 2002
Court:United States Supreme Court

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536 U.S. 622 (2002)

122 S.Ct. 2450, 153 L.Ed.2d 586, 70 U.S.L.W. 4677




No. 01–595

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 2002

Argued April 24, 2002



After immigration agents found marijuana in respondent Ruiz’s luggage, federal prosecutors offered her a “fast track” plea bargain, whereby she would waive indictment, trial, and an appeal in exchange for a reduced sentence recommendation. Among other things, the prosecutors’ standard “fast track” plea agreement acknowledges the Government’s continuing duty to turn over information establishing the defendant’s factual innocence, but requires that she waive the right to receive impeachment information relating to any informants or other witnesses, as well as information supporting any affirmative defense she raises if the case goes to trial. Because Ruiz would not agree to the latter waiver, the prosecutors withdrew their bargaining offer, and she was indicted for unlawful drug possession. Despite the absence of a plea agreement, Ruiz ultimately pleaded guilty. At sentencing, she asked the judge to grant her the same reduced sentence that the Government would have recommended had she accepted the plea bargain. The Government opposed her request, and the District Court denied it. In vacating the sentence, the Ninth Circuit took jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. §3742; noted that the Constitution requires prosecutors to make certain impeachment information available to a defendant before trial; decided that this obligation entitles defendants to the information before they enter into a plea agreement; ruled that the Constitution prohibits defendants from waiving their right to the information; and held that the “fast track” agreement was unlawful because it insisted upon such a waiver.


1. Appellate jurisdiction was proper under §3742(a)(1), which permits appellate review of a sentence “imposed in violation of law.” Respondent’s sentence would have been so imposed if her constitutional claim were sound. Thus, if she had prevailed on the merits, her victory would also have confirmed the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction. Although this Court ultimately concludes that respondent’s sentence was not “imposed in violation of law” and therefore that §3742(a)(1) does not authorize an appeal in a case of this kind, it is familiar law that a federal court always has jurisdiction to determine its own jurisdiction. See United States v. Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, 291. In order to make that determination,

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it was necessary for the Ninth Circuit to address the merits. Pp. 626-628.

2. The Constitution does not require the Government to disclose material impeachment evidence prior to entering a plea agreement with a criminal defendant. Although the Fifth and Sixth Amendments provide, as part of the Constitution’s “fair trial” guarantee, that defendants have the right to receive exculpatory impeachment material from prosecutors, see, e.g., Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87, a defendant who pleads guilty forgoes a fair trial as well as various other accompanying constitutional guarantees, Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 243. As a result, the Constitution insists that the defendant enter a guilty plea that is “voluntary” and make related waivers “knowing[ly], intelligent[ly], [and] with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences.” See, e.g., id., at 242. The Ninth Circuit in effect held that a guilty plea is not “voluntary” (and that the defendant could not, by pleading guilty, waive his right to a fair trial) unless the prosecutors first made the same disclosure of material impeachment information that they would have had to make had the defendant insisted upon a trial. Several considerations, taken together, demonstrate that holding’s error. First, impeachment information is special in relation to a trial’s fairness, not in respect to whether a plea is voluntary. It is particularly difficult to characterize such information as critical, given the random way in which it may, or may not, help a particular defendant. The degree of help will depend upon the defendant’s own independent knowledge of the prosecution’s potential case—a matter that the Constitution does not require prosecutors to disclose. Second, there is no legal authority that provides significant support for the Ninth Circuit’s decision. To the contrary, this Court has found that the Constitution, in respect to a defendant’s awareness of relevant circumstances, does not require complete knowledge, but permits a court to accept a guilty plea, with its accompanying waiver of various constitutional rights, despite various forms of misapprehension under which a defendant might labor. See, e.g., Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 757. Third, the very due process considerations that have led the Court to find trial-related rights to exculpatory and impeachment information—e.g., the nature of the private interest at stake, the value of the additional safeguard, and the requirement’s adverse impact on the Government’s interests, Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 77—argue against the existence of the “right” the Ninth Circuit found. Here, that right’s added value to the defendant is often limited, given that the Government will provide information establishing factual innocence under the proposed plea agreement, and that the defendant has other guilty-plea safeguards, see Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 11. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit’s rule could seriously

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interfere with the Government’s interest in securing guilty pleas by disrupting ongoing investigations and exposing prospective witnesses to serious intimidation and harm, thereby forcing the Government to modify its current practice, devote substantially more resources to preplea trial preparation, or abandon its heavy reliance on plea bargaining. Due process cannot demand so radical a change in order to achieve so comparatively small a constitutional benefit. Pp. 628–633.

3. Although the “fast track” plea agreement requires a defendant to waive her right to affirmative defense information, the Court does not believe, for most of the foregoing reasons, that the Constitution requires provision of this information to the defendant prior to plea bargaining. Pp. 633.

241 F.3d 1157, reversed.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and STEVENS, OCONNOR, SCALIA...

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