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First Circuit: Rehaif Error Rendered Guilty Plea Invalid

On December 22, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that when a defendant shows a reasonable probability that he would not have pleaded guilty, had the court advised him of this element, his guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary and must be vacated.

When Carlos Guzmán-Merced was 17, he was convicted as an adult with using violence against a public authority and using a firearm without a license. All were felonies. Guzman’s sentence was suspended, and he was placed on probation. He served no time in prison for the convictions.

Five years later, Guzmán was charged with being a felon-in-possession of a firearm under federal law. He pleaded guilty prior to Rehaif, so the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico never advised him of the Government’s burden to prove he knew he was a convicted felon and not allowed to possess a gun. He therefore made no objection to this error.

After his conviction, he appealed and argued that Rehaif invalidated his guilty plea because he wasn’t made aware of the elements of the offense. Reviewing for plain error (because he didn’t object to the error), the First Circuit found that several factors leaned in Guzmán’s favor: he never served any time in prison on those prior felonies, he had a “limited education,” and several years had passed since his prior felonies and the instant offense. There was a good chance a jury would have agreed that Guzmán didn’t know he was a convicted felon, the Court said.

“All in all, one can see how a person in his shoes could plausibly think that he had a decent shot of convincing at least one juror to reasonably doubt whether he knew in 2017 that his prior offenses were punishable by more than a year in prison,” the Court reasoned. Serving more than a year is a good sign to someone that they were convicted of a felony. United States v. Bryant, 976 F.3d 165 (2d Cir. 2020) (indicating that a defendant’s conviction may be vacated under Rehaif if he was not sentenced to more than one year in prison on the prior felony).

For a plea to be knowing and voluntary, the defendant must know all the elements of the offense he’s pleading to. That did not happen here, and Guzmán showed a “reasonable probability” he would not have pled guilty, the Court ruled.

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Related legal case

United States v. Guzmán-Merced



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