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Guilty plea may not end challenge to criminal law

Normally, a guilty plea usually ends a Michigan criminal case and any appeal in the criminal justice system. But, the Supreme Court is currently reviewing an appeal of a defendant who pled guilty, but is challenging the constitutionality of the underlying charges.

In May 2013, the defendant parked his vehicle within 1,000 feet of the U.S Capitol in a permit-required space. A Capitol police officer noticed the car's North Carolina plates, the absence of the permit and a large blade and empty holster inside the car.

When the defendant returned, he admitted to the police that he owned the car and that there were other permitted guns in the vehicle. A police search revealed three firearms and several knives.

Police arrested him for having readily accessible firearms on the Capitol grounds. His motions seeking dismissal because of the Second Amendment and lack of notice on the parking permit were denied.

The defendant ultimately agreed to plead guilty to the federal weapons crime. His plea agreement prohibited an appeal of his sentence, but not the right of appeal for specific issues. But, after completing his sentence, he challenged the federal law as unconstitutional under the Second Amendment and under the Fifth Amendment.

The U.S. Second Court of Appeals upheld the conviction in a brief opinion. It ruled that he made an unconditional appeal that was knowingly and willingly made, which waived the right to appeal constitutional issues.

He argued that he did not expressly waive his right to appeal constitutional issues or the power of the government to charge. He also cited a 1975 opinion, which allowed certain defendants to raise constitutional issues, such as double jeopardy, even though they pled guilty to factual issues. He also claimed that the government did not demand a specific waiver of the right to appeal as part of the plea. The government claimed that the unconditional guilty plea, made by the defendant, is a waiver of all appeals.

Regardless of the outcome though, this case could affect criminal cases across a country. During prosecution, a defense attorney should be consulted to assure constitutional rights are protected.

Source: Supreme Court of the U.S. blog, "Argument preview: Does a guilty plea waive challenge to the constitutionality of the criminal offense?," Rory Little, Sept. 27, 2017

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