Class v. United States

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation200 L.Ed.2d 37,138 S.Ct. 798
Docket NumberNo. 16–424.,16–424.
Parties Rodney CLASS, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.
Decision Date21 February 2018

Jessica R. Amunson, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Eric J. Feigin, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Jessica Ring Amunson, Erica L. Ross, Joshua M. Parker, Corinne M. Smith, Leonard R. Powell, Jenner & Block LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Jeffrey B. Wall, Acting Solicitor General, Kenneth A. Blanco, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Eric J. Feigin, Assistant to the Solicitor General, John–Alex Romano, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Does a guilty plea bar a criminal defendant from later appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute of conviction violates the Constitution? In our view, a guilty plea by itself does not bar that appeal.


In September 2013, a federal grand jury indicted petitioner, Rodney Class, for possessing firearms in his locked jeep, which was parked in a lot on the grounds of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. See 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e)(1) ("An individual ... may not carry ... on the Grounds or in any of the Capitol Buildings a firearm"). Soon thereafter, Class, appearing pro se, asked the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia to dismiss the indictment. As relevant here, Class alleged that the statute, § 5104(e), violates the Second Amendment. App. in No. 15–3015 (CADC), pp. 32–33. He also raised a due process claim, arguing that he was denied fair notice that weapons were banned in the parking lot. Id., at 39. Following a hearing, the District Court denied both claims. App. to Pet. for Cert. 9a.

Several months later, Class pleaded guilty to "Possession of a Firearm on U.S. Capitol Grounds, in violation of 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e)." App. 30. The Government agreed to drop related charges. Id., at 31.

A written plea agreement set forth the terms of Class' guilty plea, including several categories of rights that he expressly agreed to waive. Those express waivers included: (1) all defenses based upon the statute of limitations; (2) several specified trial rights; (3) the right to appeal a sentence at or below the judicially determined, maximum sentencing guideline range; (4) most collateral attacks on the conviction and sentence; and (5) various rights to request or receive information concerning the investigation and prosecution of his criminal case. Id ., at 38–42. At the same time, the plea agreement expressly enumerated categories of claims that Class could raise on appeal, including claims based upon (1) newly discovered evidence; (2) ineffective assistance of counsel; and (3) certain statutes providing for sentence reductions. Id., at 41. Finally, the plea agreement stated under the heading "Complete Agreement":

"No agreements, promises, understandings, or representations have been made by the parties or their counsel other than those contained in writing herein, nor will any such agreements ... be made unless committed to writing and signed...." Id., at 45.

The agreement said nothing about the right to raise on direct appeal a claim that the statute of conviction was unconstitutional.

The District Court held a plea hearing during which it reviewed the terms of the plea agreement (with Class present and under oath) to ensure the validity of the plea. See Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 11(b) ; United States v. Ruiz, 536 U.S. 622, 629, 122 S.Ct. 2450, 153 L.Ed.2d 586 (2002) (defendant's guilty plea must be " ‘voluntary’ " and "related waivers" must be made " ‘knowing[ly], intelligent[ly], [and] with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences' "). After providing Class with the required information and warnings, the District Court accepted his guilty plea. Class was sentenced to 24 days imprisonment followed by 12 months of supervised release.

Several days later, Class appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Class was appointed an amicus to aid him in presenting his arguments. He repeated his constitutional claims, namely, that the statute violates the Second Amendment and the Due Process Clause because it fails to give fair notice of which areas fall within the Capitol Grounds where firearms are banned. The Court of Appeals held that Class could not raise his constitutional claims because, by pleading guilty, he had waived them. App. to Pet. for Cert. 1a–5a. Class filed a petition for certiorari in this Court asking us to decide whether in pleading guilty a criminal defendant inherently waives the right to challenge the constitutionality of his statute of conviction. We agreed to do so.


The question 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. As we shall explain, this holding flows directly from this Court's prior decisions.

Fifty years ago this Court directly addressed a similar claim (a claim that the statute of conviction was unconstitutional). And the Court stated that a defendant's "plea of guilty did not ... waive his previous [constitutional] claim." Haynes v. United States, 390 U.S. 85, 87, n. 2, 88 S.Ct. 722, 19 L.Ed.2d 923 (1968). Though Justice Harlan's opinion for the Court in Haynes offered little explanation for this statement, subsequent decisions offered a rationale that applies here.

In Blackledge v. Perry, 417 U.S. 21, 94 S.Ct. 2098, 40 L.Ed.2d 628 (1974), North Carolina indicted and convicted Jimmy Seth Perry on a misdemeanor assault charge. When Perry exercised his right under a North Carolina statute to a de novo trial in a higher court, the State reindicted him, but this time the State charged a felony, which carried a heavier penalty, for the same conduct. Perry pleaded guilty. He then sought habeas relief on the grounds that the reindictment amounted to an unconstitutional vindictive prosecution. The State argued that Perry's guilty plea barred him from raising his constitutional challenge. But this Court held that it did not.

The Court noted that a guilty plea bars appeal of many claims, including some " ‘antecedent constitutional violations' " related to events (say, grand jury proceedings) that had " ‘occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea.’ " Id., at 30, 94 S.Ct. 2098 (quoting Tollett v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258, 266–267, 93 S.Ct. 1602, 36 L.Ed.2d 235 (1973) ). While Tollett claims were "of constitutional dimension," the Court explained that "the nature of the underlying constitutional infirmity is markedly different" from a claim of vindictive prosecution, which implicates "the very power of the State" to prosecute the defendant. Blackledge, 417 U.S., at 30, 94 S.Ct. 2098. Accordingly, the Court wrote that "the right" Perry "asserts and that we today accept is the right not to be haled into court at all upon the felony charge" since "[t]he very initiation of the proceedings" against Perry "operated to deprive him due process of law." Id., at 30–31, 94 S.Ct. 2098.

A year and a half later, in Menna v. New York, 423 U.S. 61, 96 S.Ct. 241, 46 L.Ed.2d 195 (1975) (per curiam ), this Court repeated what it had said and held in Blackledge. After Menna served a 30–day jail term for refusing to testify before the grand jury on November 7, 1968, the State of New York charged him once again for (what Menna argued was) the same crime. Menna pleaded guilty, but subsequently appealed arguing that the new charge violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. U.S. Const., Amdt. 5. The lower courts held that Menna's constitutional claim had been "waived" by his guilty plea.

This Court reversed. Citing Blackledge, supra, at 30, 94 S.Ct. 2098 the Court held that "a plea of guilty to a charge does not waive a claim that—judged on its face—the charge is one which the State may not constitutionally prosecute." Menna, 423 U.S., at 63, and n. 2, 96 S.Ct. 241. Menna's claim amounted to a claim that "the State may not convict" him "no matter how validly his factual guilt is established." Ibid. Menna's "guilty plea, therefore, [did] not bar the claim." Ibid.

These holdings reflect an understanding of the nature of guilty pleas which, in broad outline, stretches back nearly 150 years. In 1869 Justice Ames wrote for the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts:

"The plea of guilty is, of course, a confession of all the facts charged in the indictment, and also of the evil intent imputed to the defendant. It is a waiver also of all merely technical and formal objections of which the defendant could have availed himself by any other plea or motion. But if the facts alleged and admitted do not constitute a crime against the laws of the Commonwealth, the defendant is entitled to be discharged." Commonwealth v. Hinds, 101 Mass. 209, 210.

Decisions of federal and state courts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries reflect a similar view of the nature of a guilty plea. See United States v. Ury, 106 F.2d 28 (C.A.2 1939) (holding the "plea of guilty did not foreclose the appellant," who argued that a statute was unconstitutional, "from the review he now seeks" (citing earlier cases)); Hocking Valley R. Co. v. United States, 210 F. 735 (C.A.6 1914) (holding that a defendant may raise the claim that, because the indictment did not charge an offense no crime has been committed, for it is "the settled rule that," despite a guilty plea, a defendant "may urge" such a contention "in the reviewing court"); Carper v. State, 27 Ohio St. 572, 575 (1875) (same). We refer to these cases because it was against this background that Justice Harlan in his opinion for the Court made the statement to which we originally referred, namely, that a defendant's "plea of guilty did not, of course,...

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