Supreme Court

Supreme Court Ruling Means More People Who Plead Guilty Can Appeal

A self-proclaimed "constitutional bounty hunter" is unlikely to be freed, but his case sets a significant precedent for criminal appeals.


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Can a person who pleads guilty to a crime later challenge his conviction on the grounds that the criminal statute he was charged and convicted under is unconstitutional? On Wednesday, the Supreme Court said yes, in a decision that upends an important assumption of federal criminal procedure.

For decades, lower federal courts have held that by pleading guilty, a criminal defendant waives the right to raise most substantive and procedural claims on appeal. This rule has long reassured federal prosecutors that the guilty pleas, which make up of 95 percent of criminal case dispositions in U.S. district courts, will not generate complicated constitutional appeals. The Supreme Court's decision this week in Rodney Class v. United States may thus shift some of the focus of federal criminal practice, which is now heavily based on negotiating plea agreements, back toward litigation.

Writing for an ideologically unusual majority (composed of the Court's four Democratic-appointed justices plus Republican appointees Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts), Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that Class's claims "challenge the Government's power to criminalize [his] (admitted) conduct. They thereby call into question the Government's power to 'constitutionally prosecute' him. A guilty plea does not bar a direct appeal in these circumstances." Breyer argued that principle has deep roots in American law, citing decisions as far back as 1860.

Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito dissented from the opinion.

This result is unlikely to actually free the petitioner, Rodney Class. Class was arrested in 2013 after bringing firearms onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, in violation of federal law. According to The Wall Street Journal, "Mr. Class told FBI agents that 'he was a 'Constitutional Bounty Hunter' and a 'Private Attorney General' who traveled the nation with guns and other weapons to enforce federal criminal law against judges whom he believed had acted unlawfully.'"

On appeal, Class wishes to raise the claim that the law against bringing firearms onto Capitol grounds violates the Second Amendment and the Due Process clause. He will now be able to do so, but under current Second Amendment precedents in the D.C. Circuit, where his appeal will be heard, it is unlikely that those claims will succeed.

But whether or not the ruling frees Rodney Class, it may require a revision of the federal plea colloquy, a largely scripted exchange between judge and defendant that must take place before the entry of a guilty plea. Toward the end of the colloquy—which can take as long as 30 minutes, depending on the judge—the defendant is asked whether he understands that by pleading guilty, he is waiving all possible appellate claims except for newly discovered evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, and illegality of the sentence. The decision in Class will probably require, at minimum, an additional caveat during that portion of the colloquy.

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  1. This should relieve those who support the Police-State that forcing defendants into pleas is still the best method.

    Setting excessive bail to make it significantly harder to fight charges.
    Stacking charges.
    Delaying speedy trial requests.
    Threatening significantly more jail time if the person takes the case to trial.

    Now defendants that plea can challenge the “unconstitutional” portions of their criminal case only to be rejected by inept judges of the appellate court system.

  2. Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito dissented from the opinion.

    Has Alito ever ruled against the government? There is a lot to dislike about other members of the Supreme Court but I can’t recall once Alito ever limiting the government’s power.

  3. I dunno what my opinion is on this. It’s not irrational to state up front that if you think the law is unconstitutional, then you need to argue that as part of a defense. It’s not like the state is withholding this information and tricking defendants into waiving those appeals.

    However, I see the reality of the plea bargain as it not being right that a defendant has to double down on stacked charges, etc, if he wants to challenge the constitutionality of the law. So, I think this opinion is right. And I like the Gorsuch nomination by Trump. I am so glad Hillary is a horrible candidate.

    1. The guy did raise the unconstitutionality issue before the trial court and lost. He then pleaded guilty after that. My criminal procedure is rusty, but I think he would have had to go through a whole jury trial and been convicted before he could have taken the constitutionality issue to an appellate court. There’s no option to just appeal the trial court’s constitutional ruling before trial or pleading guilty.

    2. An independent fix for stacked charges would be to require that all charges be tried; none can be dropped except as part of a settlement.

      And charges are a bet of sorts: Ideally, I’d like all unproved charges to rebound on the prosecutor, to focus their attention on what they really expect to win. But I’d settle for the jury being able to decide that some charges were so ludicrous that they should rebound on the prosecutor.

      By rebound, I mean the prosecutor should be treated as if the bogus charges were perjury, and the punishment for perjury should be whatever punishment would have been inflicted on the accused. If you charge somebody with murder and the jury decides it was clearly just a simple accident that no one could have prevented, and the charge was bullshit, they could dump it back on the prosecutor.

      1. Actually, my solution to piling on is to have the prosecution, that is the government, actually pay both the prosecution and the defense. Every defendant gets a voucher to give to a private defense attorney to pay for his defense.
        I am thinking $3000 for a simple felony, up to $250k for capital murder. High end defense attorneys can charge more, but that is on the defendant.

        I’m not sure how this would work out with misdemeanor cases.

        1. I thought about that, but I would make it even steven — every government check split in half, and that includes cops, prosecutors, the lot.

          I think loser pays would be better as long as it covered every single expense — time off work, lost job, investigation expenses, lawyers, even buying a new house if the lost job meant missed payments and foreclosure. Anyone with a good case would find lawyers bidding for the job, since they’d know they could collect full restitution, including their pay, from the government. Of course, guilty parties would’t have the same advantage, so once again, you’d have to count all charges, including dropped and acquitted charges. If prosecutors filed 10 charges and only proved one, the other 9 would count towards loser pays, whether dropped or acquitted. Divvying them up could get messy, but that’s just more billable hours.

  4. Just because you did it doesn’t mean you’re guilty.

    //tips Pringles can to eat the remaining chip fragments//

  5. I don’t know about the technicalities of the opinion, but the bottom line is you can challenge an unconstitutional conviction even if you were coerced into a guilty plea.

    This reduces the risk of people going to prison for stuff that isn’t even a crime.

  6. What was up with Kennedy? Thomas and Alito I can understand. Gorsuch was a pleasant surprise.

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