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Colorado trial attorneys

Supreme Court allows constitutional appeal after guilty plea

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP June 27, 2018

Rodney Class is a bit of a celebrity among 2nd Amendment advocates and constitutional strict constructionists. A military veteran with a concealed-carry permit from North Carolina, Class considers himself a defender of the constitution — a “private attorney general” who seeks to hold judges accountable for failing to uphold the founding document.

He travels around — carrying guns — taking judges to task when he feels they haven’t lived up to their constitutional responsibilities. He has never threatened a judge with a gun.

In May 2013, he sought to make his gig official. He headed to Capitol Hill with the mission of convincing lawmakers to officially style him a “constitutional bounty hunter.”

Unfortunately, he was arrested. Not for his constitutional enforcement duties, but for bringing his weapons onto Capitol Hill grounds.

A police officer apparently peeked into the windows of Class’s Jeep, which was parked in a secured lot near the Capitol Building. A large knife and an empty gun holster were visible. That led to a further search of the Jeep, which yielded several knives and three guns.

Under federal statute 40 U. S. C. §5104(e), it is illegal to possess a firearm on U.S. Capitol Grounds. Class was charged with this offense and pled guilty. Four days later, he sought to appeal his conviction on the grounds that the statute was unconstitutional.

His appeal was turned away by the D.C. district and appeals courts. A standard guilty plea agreement bars the defendant from appealing on most grounds. Then the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to intervene.

In a 6-3 vote, the high court reversed the lower courts’ decisions and agreed to let Class move forward with his constitutional appeal.

For one thing, the particular plea agreement Class had signed did not specifically bar an appeal on constitutional grounds. Some plea agreements will do, but that doesn’t always settle the issue. The court may mean to say that defendants always have the right to appeal the constitutionality of the statutes under which they have been prosecuted.

“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,” reads the opinion. “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.”

Either way, Class will be allowed to bring his challenge to the constitutionality of this statute. The court did not indicate whether such a challenge is likely to be successful.