Class v United States, 583 U.S. ___ (2018)
The Supreme Court of the United States (USSC) has held that a guilty plea does not, by itself, bar a criminal defendant from appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute under which he was convicted violated the Constitution.
Rodney Class was indicted in September 2013 for possessing firearms in his locked vehicle which was parked on the grounds of the United States Capitol. Under United States Code, Title 40, §5104e(1), a person may not carry a firearm on the Grounds or in any of the Capitol Buildings.
Mr Class applied to the Federal District Court to dismiss the indictment, alleging that §5104e(1) violated the Second Amendment of the Constitution. That application was denied.
Mr Class thereafter entered into a written plea agreement (Agreement), whereby he pleaded guilty to violating §5104e(1). The Agreement contained several express waivers of ordinarily available defences and rights, including appeal rights. Relevantly, it did not address Mr Class’ right to appeal a claim that the statute of conviction was unconstitutional. The plea agreement was reviewed and approved by the District Court.
Mr Class then appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals, repeating his claim that §5104e(1) violated the Second Amendment of the Constitution. The Court of Appeals held that Mr Class could not raise that claim, because by pleading guilty he had waived his right to do so.
Mr Class then petitioned the USSC, asking it to decide whether in pleading guilty he had waived his right to challenge the constitutionality of his statute of conviction.
The USSC was split 6:3 in favour of Mr Class.
The majority of the USSC (in its opinion delivered by Breyer J), reflected on the nature of a guilty plea, noting its previous decisions whereby it held that a guilty plea is a confession of all the facts charged in the indictment, but not a confession of the validity of the charge itself.
The USSC considered that a petitioner who pleads guilty relinquishes their rights to:
- contradict the admissions made upon the entry of the plea;
- trial related privileges (such as the right to a jury trial); and
- challenge government conduct that takes place before the plea is entered,
but not the right to challenge the constitutionality of the law on which their charge was based, which Mr Class did not relinquish by his written plea agreement. Accordingly, the USSC held that Mr Class could pursue his constitutional claims on direct appeal, reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Parties to criminal proceedings in Australia cannot enter into plea agreements which guarantee a specific sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. This contrasts with the position in the United States, whereby a defendant can enter into a written plea agreement, under which they plead guilty in exchange for certainty as to the terms of their sentence. However, plea negotiations do occur in Australia. All Australian jurisdictions encourage plea negotiations, to explore whether the case can be resolved without trial (which benefits the defendant, victims and the State). Generally, negotiations will explore whether the defendant will plead guilty to a lesser offence, or to some of the offences charged. Whilst the outcome of the negotiations might be documented, no summary of the negotiations is provided to the Court. Rather, the Court will take into account the guilty plea and, often, apply a ‘discount’ to the sentence that it would have otherwise imposed.
This position was reflected on by the High Court in GAS v The Queen (2004) 217 CLR 198. Relevantly, the Court said (at 210-211) that the following were fundamental principles relating to plea agreements in Australia:
- it is for the prosecution alone to decide the charges to be pursued;
- it is for the accused alone to decide whether to plead guilty to the charges pursued. Whilst the decision to plead guilty might be made in light of advice as to what sentence might reasonably be expected, it will not be made with any foreknowledge of the sentence that will actually be imposed; and
- it is for the Court alone to decide the sentence. Although the parties may agree on the submissions to make to the Court regarding sentencing, that does not bind the Court.
By extension, a defendant who pleads guilty does not have a right to appeal their sentence simply because the sentence imposed on them is greater than the sentence they expected to receive due to their guilty plea: see R v Murphy  QCA 267.
Having said that, as was the case in Class, in Australia a defendant does not give up all of their rights – including their ability to challenge the sentence imposed on them – by pleading guilty. Like pleading guilty in the US, which involves the confession of all the facts charged in the indictment, in Australia, a guilty plea is a confession of the facts that prove the elements of the offence charged. As the USSC mentioned in Class, in the United States even if a defendant enters into a written plea agreement, that agreement must be reviewed for validity, including to ensure that the guilty plea was given voluntarily.
Similarly, in Australia a guilty plea must be given “freely”. As such, a defendant’s ability to retract a guilty plea is limited. To do so, the defendant must apply to Court for leave to withdraw their guilty plea, and prove that a miscarriage of justice would occur if the guilty plea was not revoked. In deciding whether to allow the withdrawal of the guilty plea, the Court can take into account various factors, including (but not limited to) whether the defendant:
- understood the charge to which they pleaded guilty;
- intended to admit guilt;
- on the facts, could not have been guilty of the offence in law;
- was induced by intimidation, improper inducement or fraud; and
- pleaded guilty as a result of an erroneous ruling on the admissibility of evidence.
Class v United States is a powerful reminder that, even in Australia, a defendant who pleads guilty does not give up all of their rights to challenge the sentence imposed on them, although their ability to do so will be automatically restricted by the plea.
The full decision is available here.
Andrew Staples is a Senior Associate, Marco Lagos is an Associate and Felicity Young is a Lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright.