Federal Guilty Pleas: Inequities, Indigence and the Rule 11 Process
In 2017 and 2018, the Supreme Court issued two little-noticed decisions—Lee v. United States and Class v. United States. While neither case captured the attention of the national media nor generated meaningful academic commentary, both cases are well deserving of critical examination for reasons independent of the issues presented to the Court. They deserve review because of a consequential shared fact; a fact 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 instance, the district courts accepted the defendant’s guilty plea pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure without adequately ensuring that their guilty pleas were entered with sufficient awareness of certain critical consequences attendant to their change of plea decision. 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. As stated by the Supreme Court in Brady v. United States, it “is a grave and solemn act to be accepted only with care and discernment.” However, customary federal court change of plea practice does not comport with the “care and discernment” expectancy. This article will analyze the federal guilty plea hearing process, explain why expediency and facial compliance with Rule 11 (as opposed to searching inquiries regarding a defendant’s knowledge and coercive influences) characterize federal court procedure, discuss how these shortfalls affect federal defendants generally, and the indigent and minorities in particular, and propose a pathway to reform.