Pleading Guilty: The Single Biggest Decision

Handling criminal cases, mostly in the federal courts in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, and in many other states, is how we spend most of our time, as anyone who reads this blog knows. The single biggest decision in most of our cases is whether the client should, or should not, plead guilty.  Even when we are convinced that our client “did not do it”, some clients don’t have the resources or intestinal fortitude to fight the case all the way to the finish line. I recently concluded such a case, where I thought that the prosecution’s case was weak from the beginning and was getting weaker as we approached trial.  The client, however, did not want to take the chance on losing, and since he is the one who has to serve the time in prison, he decided that the better approach was to negotiate a deal for a much shorter sentence.   I was thinking about that when I noticed this morning that the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in a case that directly impacts  guilty pleas.  The case is Class v. United States.

The criminal justice system today in which we work is mostly a series of guilty pleas.  Trials are a vanishing species.   Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1388 (2012).  In federal court, approximately 95% of all cases are resolved through a guilty plea.  Lindsey Devers, Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Plea and Charge Bargaining 1 (2011), https://www.bja.gov/Publications/PleaBargaining ResearchSummary.pdf.  However, in the case accepted for review today, the Supreme Court is wading into the issue of whether our clients might be able to appeal their conviction even after a guilty plea.

Ms. Class is a military veteran who had some firearms hidden in his vehicle which he parked in a lot near the U.S. Capitol building.  A law enforcement officer thought she saw a holster, confronted Mr. Class, and a subsequent search uncovered the weapons.  Turns out that the place where he was parked might have technically been on the Capitol grounds, and DC laws made any possession of firearms there illegal. Acting as his own attorney, Mr. Class challenged the laws, arguing that the prohibition either violated his Second Amendment rights, or violated Due Process in failing to tell the public about what was, and was not, illegal.    The District Judge denied his challenges and Mr. Class pled guilty.  However, he then filed an immediate appeal, and explained to the appellate court that he wanted to continue his challenges.  The appellate court appointed  some very talented lawyers to help out Mr. Class, and those attorneys presented a very refined and compelling argument that the laws used against this veteran were unconstitutional.  The appellate court rejected the appeal, noting decisions that say a guilty plea waives all rights, except a challenge to the “jurisdiction” of the court (or whether the plea was voluntary).

It turns out that a fair number of federal appellate courts would likely have allowed Mr. Class to continue his fight, even after a guilty plea.  These cases arise from two Supreme Court decisions in the 1970’s which held that claims about double jeopardy or prosecutorial vindictiveness survive a guilty plea and can be brought up on direct appeal.  However, the prosecutors want to nip such cases in the bud.  They point out that there is a specific part of the Federal Rules of Procedure that permit an appeal after a guilty plea, but only when the prosecutor agrees.  Mr. Class, like my clients, does not want to say “mother may I” when deciding if he wants to appeal.  As a result, I am fairly certain that the Department of Justice will fight strenuously against Mr. Class’s claim that he still has the right to challenge the constitutionality of the statutes even after pleading guilty.  Again, because pleading guilty is often the singles biggest decision we help our clients to make, we plan on following this case closely.