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Guilty Plea Does Not Foreclose Challenge To Constitutionality Of Conviction, U.S. Supreme Court Decides

by Brandon Sample, Esq.

Rodney Class pleaded guilty to illegally possessing a firearm on the U.S. Capitol grounds. Notwithstanding his guilty plea, Class appealed his conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Class argued that his conviction was unconstitutional because the statute that criminalized gun possession on Capitol grounds violated the Second Amendment.

The D.C. Circuit rejected Class’ challenge. According to the appeals court, Class’ guilty plea waived his right to challenge the constitutionality of his conviction.

Class sought and was granted certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the Court, framed the relevant legal question as “[d]oes a guilty plea bar a criminal defendant from later appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute of conviction violates the Constitution?” Answering that question in the negative, a 6-3 majority of the Court reversed.

The Court began its analysis by looking at 50 years of prior cases concerning the effect of a guilty plea on a subsequent challenge to a conviction. In Haynes v. United States, 390 U.S. 85, 87, n. 2 (1968), for instance, the Court noted its general recognition that a “plea of guilty d[oes] not waive a previous constitutional claim,” but did not elaborate further.

It was not until Blackledge v. Perry, 417 U.S. 21 (1974), that the Court first put meat on its analysis about whether a guilty plea forecloses all challenges to a conviction.

Perry argued that his reprosecution after his conviction was overturned on appeal violated due process. The state asserted that Perry’s guilty plea barred him from making his challenge.

However, the Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a claim of vindictive prosecution goes to the “the very power of the State to prosecute the defendant.” As such, the Court concluded, Perry was permitted to attack his conviction.

Similarly, in Menna v. New York, 423 U.S. 61 (1975), the Court held that a valid guilty plea does not waive a defendant’s ability to challenge a conviction that, on its face, was obtained in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. Like Blackledge, such a conviction, the Court wrote, “amounted to a claim that the State may not convict him no matter how validly his factual guilt is established.”

Nevertheless, the Court recognized that not all challenges after a guilty plea are cognizable. For example, in United States v. Broce, 488 U.S. 563 (1989), the Court rejected a pair of Double Jeopardy Clause challenges to conspiracy convictions obtained after a guilty plea.

While the defendants in Broce and Menna both relied on the Double Jeopardy Clause, the Court distinguished the claims in Broce from Menna on the basis that the Broce defendants were unable to “prove their claim by relying on those indictments and the existing record and without contradicting those indictments.” Consequently, the Court concluded that the Broce defendants could not proceed with the challenge to their convictions.

The Court also reiterated that “case-related constitutional defects that occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea,” such as problems with grand jury proceedings, remain non-cognizable after the entry of a plea.

Applying these precedents to Class’ claims, the Court held that Class’ guilty plea did not foreclose the challenge to his conviction: “Unlike the claims in Broce, Class’ constitutional claims here, as we understand them, do not contradict the terms of the indictment or the written plea agreement. They are consistent with Class’ knowing, voluntary, and intelligent admission that he did what the indictment alleged. Those claims can be ‘resolved without any need to venture beyond that record.’”

The Court explained: “Nor do Class’ claims focus upon case-related constitutional defects that ‘occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea.’ They could not, for example, have been ‘cured’ through a new indictment by a properly selected grand jury. Because the defendant has admitted the charges against him, a guilty plea makes the latter kind of constitutional claim ‘irrelevant to the constitutional validity of the conviction.’ But, the cases to which we have referred, make clear that a defendant’s guilty plea does not make irrelevant the kind of constitutional claim Class seeks to make.” [citations omitted]

The Court added: “In sum, the claims at issue here do not fall within any of the categories of claims that Class’ plea agreement forbids him to raise on direct appeal. They challenge the Government’s power to criminalize Class’ (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.” [citations omitted]

The Government argued “that by entering a guilty plea, Class inherently relinquished his constitutional claims.” The Court agreed that “a guilty plea does implicitly waive some claims, including some constitutional claims.” For instance, the Court held that “[a] valid guilty plea … renders irrelevant — and thereby prevents the defendant from appealing — the constitutionality of case-related government conduct that takes place before the plea is entered. Neither can the defendant later complain that the indicting grand jury was unconstitutionally selected.”

But the Court reiterated that “those kinds of claims are not at issue here.”

The Court also acknowledged that “a valid guilty plea relinquishes any claim that would contradict the admissions necessarily made upon entry of a voluntary plea of guilty.” However, as the Court explained, “Class’ challenge d[id] not in any way deny that he engaged in the conduct to which he admitted. Instead, like the defendants in Blackledge and Menna, he seeks to raise a claim which, ‘judged on its face’ based upon the existing record, would extinguish the government’s power to ‘constitutionally prosecute’ the defendant if the claim were successful.” Such a claim is not foreclosed by the entry of a guilty plea, the Court held.

The Court also rebuffed the Government’s reliance on Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(a)(2) to bar Class’ challenge. Rule 11(a)(2) provides: “Conditional Plea. With 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. A defendant who prevails on appeal may then withdraw the plea.”

The Government tried to argue that Rule 11(a)(2) precludes challenges to an unconditional plea. Stated differently, the Government asserted that only a “conditional” plea could preserve a constitutional challenge like the one Class presented. Again, though, the Court disagreed.

According to the Court, Rule 11(a)(2) “does not say whether it sets forth the exclusive procedure for a defendant to preserve a constitutional claim following a guilty plea.” In fact, the Court wrote, the Advisory Committee Notes to the rule make clear that the rule was not intended to displace “certain kinds of constitutional objections [that] may be raised after a plea of guilty,” citing the “Menna-Blackledge doctrine.” As a result, the Court held that “Rule 11(a)(2) cannot resolve this case.”

Finally, the Government argued that Class waived his claims because the district judge “stated that, under the written plea agreement, Class was “giving up [his] right to appeal [his] conviction.”

The Court, however, said it did “not see why the District Court Judge’s statement should bar Class’ constitutional claims.” This statement, the Court wrote, “was made to ensure Class understood ‘the terms of any plea-agreement provision waiving the right to appeal or to collaterally attack the sentence.’ Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 11(b)(1)(N). It does not expressly refer to a waiver of the appeal right here at issue. And, if it is interpreted as expressly including that appeal right, it was wrong, as the Government acknowledged at oral argument. Under these circumstances, Class’ acquiescence neither expressly nor implicitly waived his right to appeal his constitutional claims.”

The judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was accordingly reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings. Class v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 798 (2018). 

Brandon Sample is an attorney and the co-author of The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, which is published by Prison Legal News. Brandon practices exclusively in federal courts across the United States. Learn more about Brandon at


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Class v. United States



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