When Michael Gary pled guilty to two counts of possessing a firearm as a felon, he was not informed of the essential elements of the charges against him. Specifically, he was not informed that the state would have to prove that he actually knew he was prohibited from carrying a firearm, because this mens rea element was first articulated in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019)—decided while Gary’s case was on direct appeal. Gary filed a supplemental brief in his appeal before the Fourth Circuit, explaining that he had not been informed of this mens rea element, and the court therefore vacated his guilty plea.
But the Supreme Court granted the Government’s cert petition, which argues that the failure to adequately inform Gary as to the charges against him was “harmless error,” so his conviction should stand. The Government contends that omitting the mens rea element “typically makes no difference at all to a defendant’s decision to plead guilty,” and asks the Court to consider the “substantial costs” that would be imposed if these defective pleas were vacated. In other words, the Government’s implicit premise is that defendants are presumptively going to plead guilty, and that failure to inform defendants about what they are actually pleading to should not slow down this process.
The Cato Institute therefore filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the Government’s argument, affirm the Fourth Circuit’s judgment, and protect the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that defendants will “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” against them. The brief entreats the Court to take stock of two deleterious trends in criminal justice that make protection of this guarantee all the more imperative. First, the brief explains how the Government’s position is indicative of a long and steady erosion of the jury trial itself. Had Gary’s conviction been handed down by a jury, the Government’s failure to prove the mens rea element would clearly require vacatur of the judgment. Second, the brief underscores how the increasingly coercive nature of modern plea agreements make it all the more urgent that the Court recognize the explicit lack of voluntariness in this particular case.