By: Jamie Mathis, J.D. Candidate, May 2019, St. Thomas University School of Law.

If a criminal defendant pleads guilty, can he challenge the constitutionality of the statute he is convicted under?  Does a defendant waive his right to this challenge after he pleads guilty?  Does that right have to be explicitly preserved in his plea agreement?  These are questions that the United States Supreme Court were asked during oral arguments on October 4, 2017, in Class v. United States. By answering these questions, the Supreme Court was able to “clarify the appellate rights of criminal defendants who have plead guilty and subsequently want to challenge the constitutionality of their statute of conviction,” an issue that circuit courts across the nation have been divided on.

This case is centered around Petitioner, Rodney Class, who parked his Jeep in a government parking lot on Capitol grounds in Washington D.C. back in May of 2013. So, what is the problem with that?  Well, Mr. Class’s Jeep did not have a valid permit to park in that particular lot and his Jeep also contained guns and ammunition inside.  After police officers saw weapons inside the Jeep, Class eventually returned and confirmed that he was the owner of the Jeep and that he had valid permits for the weapons.  The police subsequently secured a search warrant for the Jeep and uncovered three guns and ammunition.  Class was indicted for violating 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e), which prohibits any individual from carrying, or having accessible to them, a firearm on Capitol grounds.  Class, representing himself, subsequently filed thirty-six different motions claiming the statute violates his Second Amendment and Due Process rights, all which the District Court denied.

Class eventually plead guilty to the charge after failing to appear at trial.  During his plea hearing in 2014, the District Court explained to Class that by pleading guilty without invoking Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure (“FRCP”) 11(a)(2), he would lose all rights to an appeal unless there was some other “fundamental defect” in the guilty-plea proceedings. FRCP 11(a)(2) states that “[w]ith the consent of the court and the government, a defendant may enter a conditional plea of guilty or nolo contendere, reserving in writing the right to have an appellate court review an adverse determination of a specified pretrial motion.” Class ultimately consented to the District Court’s terms and was convicted.

Not four days later, Class appealed his conviction, focusing on how the statute violates his Second Amendment rights.  However, the government argued that Class “inherently waived” his right to raise any constitutional claims because hefailed to invoke FRCP 11(a)(2); the Circuit Court agreed and affirmed the District Court’s ruling.  The court relied on the current controlling precedent under United States v. Delgado-Garcia which holds that “unconditional guilty pleas which are knowing and intelligent . . . waive the defendant’s claims of error on appeal, even constitutional claims.”  The Delgado Court articulated two exceptions to this rule where a defendant may appeal: (1) “the right not to be haled into court at all” or (2) the District Court lacked “subject-matter jurisdiction over the case,” neither of which were satisfied by Class, according to the Circuit Court.

Justice Kennedy clarified and narrowed the issues presented, explaining that this case is only meant to determine how to properly interpret FRCP 11, which governs federal criminal guilty pleas.  Furthermore, this case is “not a constitutional one, nor will it bind the states.”  This case is strictly about what the “default rule,” under FRCP 11, should be for defendants who plead guilty, but do not expressly waive, or preserve a constitutional challenge to the offense statute.  However, there was some concern among the Court about the broad validity of appeal waivers for all kinds of claims.  The main concern was centered around the language of the opinion and how the justice writing it would need to draft the language in a way that would “narrowly limit appeals after guilty pleas, even if it preserves constitutional challenges to statutes when an express waiver is absent.”

On February 21, 2018, Justice Breyer delivered the 6–3 opinion of the Court which ultimately held that “[a] guilty plea, by itself, does not bar a federal criminal defendant from challenging the constitutionality of his statute of conviction on direct appeal.”  This holding parallels the Court’s previous decisions in Haynes v. United States, Blackledge v. Perry, and Menna v. New York.  Specifically, the Court points to the Menna-Blackledge doctrine which states 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.”  The Court reasoned that Class never waived his constitutional claims by pleading guilty, expressly or implicitly.  Instead, by appealing his conviction, Class simply challenged “the Government’s power to criminalize his (admitted) conduct” and therefore questioned the “Government’s power to constitutionally prosecute him.”  As for FRCP 11(a)(2), the Court opines that this rule cannot resolve the case, because the Menna-Blackledge doctrine was at issue.  Furthermore, FRCP 11 itself is silent as to the procedure for defendants to preserving constitutional claims following a guilty plea and the Rule drafters acknowledged FRCP 11(a)(2) has no application to this type of constitutional objection.