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Name: U.S. v. Vonn
Case #: 00-973
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 03/04/2002
Subsequent History: Cross-cites: 122 S.Ct. 1043; 152 L.Ed.2d 90

A district court failed to re-advise appellant of his right to an attorney at trial after taking a waiver of that right in previous hearings. The omission technically violated Federal Criminal Procedure rule 11, which states “the court must address the defendant personally in open court and inform the defendant” of his specific rights when taking a plea. Almost a year later, appellant wanted to withdraw his guilty plea to a firearms charge, claiming that he was unarmed during the robbery (but not mentioning the right to counsel omission). The judge denied the motion and sentenced appellant to prison. Later in his appeal, appellant for the first time brought up the fact that he had never been informed of his right to counsel at the plea hearing and was unaware that he had them. Vonn argued that the omission caused him to plead guilty to the firearms charge without knowing he could never get his trial back The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel agreed with Vonn that the mistake harmed him and that his guilty plea must be vacated. The Ninth Circuit also applied a “harmless error” standard in determining whether Vonn’s rights were compromised. The harmless error standard requires the government to prove that the defendant knew beforehand of his right to counsel and therefore was not substantially hurt by the error. That decision conflicted with that of five other circuits, which apply the “plain error” standard in whole or in part to decide on a so-called rule 11 violation. The plain error standard in essence puts the burden of proof on the defendant. The Ninth Circuit submitted an amended opinion that ruled that the court could look only at the words of the guilty plea hearing transcript in making a determination. But that decision also conflicted with several other circuit courts, which look at the entire record. Here, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court sided with those courts holding that a criminal defendant who pleads guilty carries the burden of showing plain-error in claiming that a trial judge failed to inform him of his right to counsel. The Court vacated the Court of Appeals opinion and remanding the case to the 9th Circuit for reconsideration.