Supreme Court Rules Defendants May Challenge Statute of Conviction Despite Guilty Plea

by Locke Lord LLP

Locke Lord LLP

On Wednesday, February 21st, the Supreme Court clarified murky case law among the Circuit Courts. In a 6–3 decision in Class v. United States, the Court held that a defendant who pleads guilty to a federal crime may still appeal his conviction by challenging the constitutionality of the underlying criminal statute.1  Overall, Class lays out the exact nature of a guilty plea, but also tees up the Court to face a follow-up question in the future.

A federal grand jury indicted Defendant Rodney Class (“Class”) for possession of a firearm on the United States Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C.2  Class moved to dismiss the indictment because the criminal statute violated the Second Amendment and the Due Process Clause.3  After the trial court denied his motion, Class pleaded guilty and was sentenced.4  Class’ plea agreement expressly listed the categories of rights he waived and reserved for appeal.5 The agreement said nothing about Class’ right to challenge on appeal the constitutionality of the statute underlying his conviction.6

When Class later appealed, he again argued that the statute violated both the Second Amendment and the Due Process Clause.7  The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, however, ruled against Class, reasoning that he relinquished his constitutional claims when he pleaded guilty.8  The Supreme Court disagreed and drew a line between the categories of appellate claims that are inherently waived with a guilty plea and those that are not.

A valid guilty plea, according to the Court, bars appeals based on “antecedent constitutional violations . . . that occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea.”9  The Court explicitly included in this category challenges to grand jury proceedings, unconstitutional searches, the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination, the right to a jury trial, the right to confront accusers, and the right to a fair trial.10

Constitutional challenges of “the very power of the State” to criminalize admitted conduct, however, “exist beyond the confines of the trial” and are “markedly different.”11  The Court specified that a guilty plea does not inherently bar claims of vindictive prosecution in contravention of the Due Process Clause, violations of the Double Jeopardy Clause, and constitutional challenges that “do not contradict the terms of the indictment or the written plea agreement.”12

The Court’s reasoning in Class centered on the Menna-Blackledge

doctrine, named after two prior cases where the Supreme Court held that the defendants could assert constitutional challenges to the government’s very power to prosecute them, despite the defendants’ guilty pleas.13  In both cases, the Class Court explained, a guilty plea is understood to be a confession of the facts and requisite intent charged and that such conduct technically satisfies the elements of the crime.14  As such, a guilty plea does not extinguish a defendant’s claim that “no matter how validly his factual guilty is established[,]” the government may not constitutionally convict the defendant.15

In contrast, the Court pointed to its decision in United States v. Broce.16 There, at the same proceeding, the defendants pleaded guilty to two different indictments that described two separate conspiracies, but later sought to challenge their convictions on double jeopardy grounds by arguing that they had admitted to only one conspiracy.17 The Court denied the defendants’ appeals because their pleas of guilty accepted the facts as charged in the indictments and, thus, the defendants could not prove their claims without contradicting those same indictments.18

Unlike Broce, the Court noted that the defendant in Class was neither challenging the facts as charged in the indictment nor contesting “case-related constitutional defects” that occurred before the guilty plea.19 Class’ claim, then, could be “resolved without any need to venture beyond [the] record” or contradict the terms of the indictment or plea agreement.20 In his appeal, Class was challenging the government’s very power to criminalize his conduct.21 As such, the Court concluded that Class’ guilty plea did not bar his appeal.22

The next logical step that Class will lead to is the government seeking to include an express waiver of a defendant’s constitutional challenges to the statute underlying their conviction in plea agreements. Still, as the Court’s dissent pointed out, Class leaves open the question of whether a defendant can waive his right to challenge the constitutionality of the statute of their conviction by plea agreement at all.23  Hence, while Class is certain to impact constitutional criminal law, the extent of its reach may have yet to be seen.


[1] No. 16–424, slip op. at 1, 583 U.S. ___ (2018).

[2] Id. (citing 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e) (“An individual . . . may not carry . . . on the Grounds or in any Capitol Buildings a firearm”).

[3] Class, 583 U.S. ___, slip op. at 1.

[4] Id. at 1–3.

[5]  The plea agreement expressly waived Class’ right to statute of limitations defenses, specified trial rights, the right to appeal his sentencing in certain circumstances, most collateral attacks on his conviction and sentence, and various rights to information on the investigation and prosecution of his case.  Id. at 2.  The agreement also reserved Class’ right to appeal his conviction because of newly discovered evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, and certain statutory sentence reductions.  Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 3.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 4 (quoting Tollett v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258, 266–67 (1973)).

[10] Class, 583 U.S. ___, slip op. at 4, 7, 8.

[11] Id. (quoting Blackledge v. Perry, 417 U.S. 21, 30 (1974), and Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 324 (1999)).

[12] Class, 583 U.S. ___, slip op. at 4–6.

[13] Id.  See Blackledge, 417 U.S. at 30–31 (holding that defendant’s guilty plea did not bar him from asserting a claim of vindictive prosecution under the Due Process Clause when the government reindicted the defendant with a higher crime after he exercised his statutory right to a new trial); Menna v. New York, 423 U.S. 61, 63 (1975) (per curiam) (ruling that the defendant could appeal his conviction on double jeopardy grounds when he pleaded guilty to a crime that the he had already served a jail term for).

[14] See Class, 583 U.S. ___, slip op. at 4–5 (citations omitted).

[15] Id. at 5 (quoting Menna, 423 U.S. at 63).

[16] 488 U.S. 563 (1989).

[17] Class, 583 U.S. ___, slip op. at 6 (citing Broce, 488 U.S. at 576).

[18] Class, 583 U.S. ___, slip op. at 6 (citing Broce, 488 U.S. at 569, 576).

[19] Class, 583 U.S. ___, slip op. at 6–7.

[20] Id. at 6 (citing Broce, 488 U.S. at 575).

[21] Class, 583 U.S. ___, slip op. at 7.

[22] Id.

[23] See id. at 12–13 (Alito, J., dissenting) (“[W]hether this rule applies when the claim falls into one of the prior four categories is left unclear.”).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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