Constitutional Rights Pushed Aside with a Guilty Plea?

By Molly Moloney, J.D. Class of 2018 Touro Law Review Associate Editor

On May 30, 2013, Rodney Class parked outside of the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington D.C., just 1000 feet from the capitol building.[1] U.S. Capitol Police approached his vehicle, looked in the cab, and saw what they believed to be firearms.[2] This led to a search of Class’s car, where 256 rounds of ammunition were found[3] along with three loaded firearms: a Taurus .44 caliber pistol, a Ruger LC9 9mm pistol, and a Henry Arms .44 caliber rifle.[4] Class was subsequently indicted for violating 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e) (“unlawful possession of a firearm on capitol grounds or buildings”)[5] and 22 D.C. Code § 4504(a) (carrying a pistol [outside home or place of business]”).[6]

After his indictment, Class filed several motions to dismiss, arguing, among other things, that the Second Amendment protected his storage of the weapons found in his car.[7] By October 2014, the District Court denied Class’s motions and concluded that the “government-owned parking lot was the same as a ‘government building’ where all weapons could presumptively be banned” and denied his claim that his Second Amendment rights had been violated.[8]

Less than one month after the denial of his motions, Class accepted a plea offer from the Office of The United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and pled guilty to violating 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e).[9] He signed an agreement stating that by accepting the plea offer he was waiving “certain rights afforded by the Constitution of the United States . . . the right to plead not guilty, and the right to a jury trial.”[10] In addition, Class waived his “right to appeal the sentence in this case . . . except . . . the right to appeal [an] illegal sentence,” and waived “any right to challenge the conviction entered or sentence imposed . . .”[11] Class, under pro se representation, signed the agreement on November 16, 2014, with an acknowledgment by attorney A.J. Kramer, his standby counsel.[12] Nonetheless, Class appealed to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.[13]

On appeal, Class argued that 42 U.S.C. § 5104(e) violated his Second Amendment right to bear arms in that it “effectively ban[s] law-abiding citizens from securely storing lawfully owned weapons in their cars parked in a publicly accessible lot.”[14] The government argued in response that his right to raise any constitutional claims were inherently waived when he pleaded guilty.[15] The court ultimately sided with the government and refused to address the merits of Class’s constitutional claims.[16] Despite the holding of the D.C. Circuit, Class filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court on September 30, 2016.[17] The Supreme Court granted the petition for writ of certiorari on February 21, 2017, and is on schedule to address the issue that has created a split in the circuit courts: whether constitutional challenges to a statute of conviction are inherently waived when a criminal defendant pleads guilty.[18]

As it stands, the D.C., First, and Tenth Circuits do not allow constitutional challenges to a criminal statute after a guilty plea, while the Third, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits allow such claims.[19] The Seventh and Eighth Circuits make their determinations on a facial and as-applied basis.[20] This circuit split on whether to permit a constitutional challenge after a guilty plea has arisen, in part, because of two inconsistent Supreme Court decisions: Blackledge v. Perry[21] and Menna v. New York.[22] In Blackledge, the Supreme Court held that “when a criminal defendant enters a guilty plea, he may not thereafter raise independent claims relating to the deprivation of constitutional rights that occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea.”[23] However, one year later in Menna, the Court held that “[a] guilty plea . . . simply renders irrelevant those constitutional violations not logically inconsistent with the valid establishment of factual guilt and which do not stand in the way of conviction if factual guilt is established.”[24] This ambiguity in Supreme Court decisions has likely contributed to the confusion and split in the circuit courts’ interpretation and application.

In October 2017, the Supreme Court will rule on this challenging issue and determine Rodney Class’s fate in regards to his constitutional claims.[25] Not only will this affect Class, but it will affect the rights of any other criminal defendant who pleads guilty in future litigation. With time and the reasoned judgment of the Supreme Court, nine justices will decide whether criminal defendants will be provided an avenue of relief for constitutional violations after a plea of guilty.

[1] Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 5, Class v. U.S., 2016 WL 5765174 (Sept. 30, 2016) (No. 16-424).

[2] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra, note 1.

[3] John Elwood, Relist Watch, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 27, 2017 3:52 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2017/01/relist-watch-97/.

[4] Indictment, U.S. v. Class, 2013 WL 9601401 (Oct. 23, 2014) (No. 1:13-cr-00253-RWR).

[5] 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e) (2002).

[6] 22 D.C. Code § 22-4504(a) (2012).

[7] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra note 1, at 6-8.

[8] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra note 1, at 7-8.

[9] Class Plea Agreement, U.S. v. Class, No.: 1:13-cr-00253-RWR (D.D.C. Oct. 23, 2014) ECF No. 169.

[10] Class Plea Agreement, supra note 9, at 5-6.

[11] Class Plea Agreement, supra note 9, at 6.

[12] Class Plea Agreement, supra note 9, at 10. Stand by counsel is an attorney who is appointed to assist a defendant when he or she decides to proceed pro se. Standby counsel, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).

[13] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra note 1, at 9.

[14] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra note 1, at 9.

[15] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra note 1, at 10.

[16] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra note 1, at 10.

[17] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra note 1.

[18] Petition for Writ of Cert., supra note 1, at 12-13.

[19] Reply Brief for Petitioner at 1-2, Class v. U.S., 2016 WL 34881 (U.S. Jan. 3, 2017) (No. 16-424).

[20] Brief for Petitioner, supra note 19, at 2.

[21] 417 U.S. 21 (1974)

[22] 43 U.S. 61 (1975).

[23] Blackeldge, 417 U.S. at 29-30.

[24] Menna, 43 U.S. at 62, fn. 2.

[25] Supreme Court of the United States, SCOTUSblog, http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/class-v-united-states/. (last visited April 4, 2017).

 

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