Academic journal article Boston College Law Review

Federal Guilty Pleas: Inequities, Indigence, and the Rule 11 Process

Academic journal article Boston College Law Review

Federal Guilty Pleas: Inequities, Indigence, and the Rule 11 Process

Article excerpt


In 2017 and 2018, the Supreme Court issued two little-noticed decisions, Lee v. United States and Class v. United States.1 Lee assessed a criminal de- fendant's ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim that alleged that his decision to forgo a federal jury trial and enter a plea of guilty was based on his counsel's erroneous advice regarding the possibility of deportation.2 Class addressed whether a criminal defendant who entered a non-conditional guilty plea inherently waived his right to pursue an appeal that challenged the constitutionality of his statute of conviction.3

Although neither case captured the attention of the national media nor generated meaningful academic commentary, both cases are well deserving of critical examination-less so for the issues presented to the Court, though they are meaningful. But they deserve review because of a consequential shared fact. This fact is representative of a commonplace, yet largely overlooked, federal-court practice that routinely disadvantages the indigent (and disproportionately minority populations), and compromises the integrity of arguably the most consequential component of the federal criminal justice process. In each case, the district courts accepted the defendant's guilty plea pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure4 without ensuring their guilty pleas were entered with sufficient awareness of certain critical consequences attendant to their change of plea decision.5

In the end, the Supreme Court rectified the alleged wrongs in Lee and Class. The Court in Lee found that Jae Lee sustained prejudice by virtue of his counsel's faulty advice regarding the possibility of deportation.6 The Court reasoned that there was a reasonable probability that Lee would have rejected the plea offer and gone to trial to avoid this outcome.7 Similarly, the Court in Class concluded that Rodney Class's claims challenging the constitutionality of his statute of conviction were preserved despite his guilty plea, given that the claims questioned the very authority of the government to obtain an indictment for his underlying conduct.8

But the Court's savior acts mask a more pressing concern: why were these issues allowed to advance to the Supreme Court in the first place? In each case, the guilty pleas were accepted by the district court as knowing and voluntary when, in Lee it was not, and in Class it was certainly a debat- able question. In Lee, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee had an opportunity to assess whether the defendant fully appreciated the possibility of deportation as an accompaniment to his decision to plead guilty.9 Similarly, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Class had an opportunity to assess the defendant's appreciation of the scope of his appellate rights.10

The core function of a guilty-plea hearing is to ensure that a defendant's decision to change his plea is sufficiently informed and voluntary.11 It is a decision that is often highly consequential. As stated by the Supreme Court in 1970 in Brady v. United States, it "is a grave and solemn act to be accepted only with care and discernment," and represents the "defendant's consent that judgment of conviction may be entered without a trial-a waiver of his right to trial before a jury or a judge."12 And it is an election that the overwhelming majority of criminal defendants,13 including the indigent and minority populaces who comprise a disproportionate percentage of this class,14 routinely make.

Nevertheless, customary federal-court change-of-plea practice does not comport with the "care and discernment" expectancy.15 Expediency and facial compliance with the governing rules (as opposed to searching inquiries regarding a defendant's knowledge and coercive influences) characterize federal-court procedure. Defendants are routinely adjudicated guilty without a meaningful judicial inquiry testing a defendant's comprehension of the critical attendant consequences or the voluntariness of his decision. …

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