I happen to like people like Rodney “Rod” Class, even if I often disagree with them. Some people call him a “gun nut.” He refers to himself as a “constitutional bounty hunter.” He likes his guns, and has a very healthy distrust of government. Rod’s case will be argued late next week in the Supreme Court, and the main issue is whether a guilty plea waives a challenge to the constitutionality of the criminal offense to which the person entered a plea. I wrote about Rod’s case last Winter, and sort of predicted it might be accepted for review by the Supreme Court. Turns out it was accepted, and it is a big deal in our business.
Without guilty pleas, the criminal justice system would likely collapse. That is one big reason why this case is important. Mr. Class, foolishly representing himself, pled guilty to a federal crime of possessing “readily available” firearms on the property of the U.S. Capitol grounds. Now, I happen to agree with a law that says no one should have a firearm on such property, but Rod thought he was within his rights. Nevertheless, he pled guilty, got a “time served” sentence, which normally would have ended the situation. But, as I mentioned above, Rod is an “interesting” person. He wanted to continue his fight against this particular law up through the appellate courts. He wanted to challenge whether it is a crime for a law-abiding citizen to have a constitutionally protected gun, on the property of his own Capitol, for gosh sakes!
Rod ran headlong into a problem we encounter when people call us after they or their family member have already entered a guilty plea. For the most part, the plea “waives” or gives up all rights to challenge any aspect of the case. Furthermore, in federal court prosecutors require that a Defendant enter into plea agreements by which the person waives all of his or her appeal and post-conviction challenges (other than a few meaningless exceptions that are almost unheard of).
Here is where it got interesting. The court appointed some very talented lawyers to help Rod. These attorneys, looking to two Supreme Court rulings from the mid-1970’s, noted that there was no “express” waiver of Rod’s right to challenge the constitutionality of his conviction. In other words, admitting to “factual guilt” does not give up the right to challenge whether the supposed “crime” can even be prosecuted under the Constitution. His lawyers argue that the challenges Rod wants to bring against the law for which he was prosecuted go to the very power of the State to haul him into court, regardless of whether he is factually guilty.
The prosecutors will likely argue that the criminal justice world will come to an end if people who enter guilty pleas can nevertheless traipse over to the court of appeals and come up with a panoply of constitutional claims, thus meaning that no case is ever finished. They will also point to a specific rule that allows a Defendant to reserve a specific issue to go up on appeal even after a guilty plea (but the prosecutor and the Judge have to agree to this procedure, meaning that folks in Rod’s situation need to kind of play “mother may I” in order to vindicate their rights).
I like how this case is a perfect example of how some people turn situations upside down. Several Justices on the Court are avid protectors of the Second Amendment, and likely are sympathetic to Rod’s quest to challenge the law under which he was prosecuted. However, these same Justices rarely issue rulings that help criminal Defendants. The government will likely make subtle arguments about how if the Court rules for Rod Class, the next time it won’t be some person who wants to advocate for gun rights, but could be some repeat criminal making a far less appetizing claim. Should be an interesting argument!