United States v. Vonn
Annotate this Case
535 U.S. 55 (2002)
OCTOBER TERM, 2001
UNITED STATES v. VONN
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 00-973. Argued November 6, 200l-Decided March 4, 2002
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 lays out steps that a judge must take to ensure that a guilty plea is knowing and voluntary. Rule l1(h)'s requirement that any variance from those procedures "which does not affect substantial rights shall be disregarded" is similar to the general "harmless-error" rule in Rule 52(a). However, Rule l1(h) does not include a plain-error provision comparable to Rule 52(b), which provides that a defendant who fails to object to trial error may nonetheless have a conviction reversed by showing among other things that plain error affected his substantial rights. After respondent Vonn was charged with federal bank robbery and firearm crimes, the Magistrate Judge twice advised him of his constitutional rights, including the right to be represented by counsel at every stage of the proceedings; Vonn signed a statement saying that he had read and understood his rights; and he answered yes to the court's questions whether he had understood the court's explanation of his rights and whether he had read and signed the statement. When Vonn later pleaded guilty to robbery, the court advised him of the constitutional rights he was relinquishing, but skipped the advice required by Rule (11)(c)(3) that he would have the right to assistance of counsel at trial. Subsequently, Vonn pleaded guilty to the firearm charge and to a later-charged conspiracy count. Again, the court advised him of the rights he was waiving, but did not mention the right to counsel. Eight months later, Vonn moved to withdraw his guilty plea on the firearm charge but did not cite Rule 11 error. The court denied the motion and sentenced him. On appeal, he sought to set aside all of his convictions, for the first time raising Rule 11. The Ninth Circuit agreed that there had been error and held that Vonn's failure to object before the District Court to the Rule 11 omission was of no import because Rule l1(h) subjects all Rule 11 violations to harmless-error review. Declining to go beyond the plea proceeding in considering whether Vonn was aware of his rights, the court held that the Government had not met its burden, under harmless-error review, of showing no effect on substantial rights, and vacated the convictions.
1. A defendant who lets Rule 11 error pass without objection in the trial court must satisfy Rule 52(b)'s plain-error rule. Pp.62-74.
(a) Relying on the canon that expressing one item of a commonly associated group or series excludes another left unmentioned, Vonn claims that Rule l1(h)'s specification of harmless-error review shows an intent to exclude the plain-error standard with which harmless error is paired in Rule 52. However, this canon is only a guide, whose fallibility can be shown by contrary indications that adopting a particular rule or statute was probably not meant to signal any exclusion of its common relatives. Here, the harmless- and plain-error alternatives are associated together in Rule 52, having apparently equal dignity with Rule l1(h), and applying by its terms to error in the application of any other Rule of Criminal Procedure. To hold that Rule l1(h)'s terms imply that the latter half of Rule 52 has no application to Rule 11 errors would amount to finding a partial repeal of Rule 52(b) by implication, a result sufficiently disfavored, Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto Co., 467 U. S. 986, 1017, as to require strong support. Support, however, is not readily found, for Vonn has merely selected one possible interpretation of the supposedly intentional omission of a Rule 52 (b) counterpart while logic would equally allow a reading that, without a plain-error rule, a silent defendant has no right of review on direct appeal. Pp. 63-66.
(b) Vonn attempts to find support for his reading by pointing beyond the Rule's text to McCarthy v. United States, 394 U. S. 459-which was decided when Rule 11 was relatively primitive-and the developments in that case's wake culminating in Rule l1(h)'s enactment. One clearly expressed Rule l1(h) objective was to end the practice ofreversing automatically for any Rule 11 error, a practice stemming from reading McCarthy expansively to require that Rule 52(a)'s harmless-error provision could not be applied in Rule 11 cases. However, McCarthy had nothing to do with the choice between harmless-error and plainerror review. Nor is there any persuasive reason to think that when the Advisory Committee and Congress considered Rule l1(h) they accepted the view Vonn erroneously attributes to this Court in McCarthy. The Advisory Committee focused on the disarray, after McCarthy, among Courts of Appeals in treating trivial errors. The cases cited in the Committee's Notes cannot reliably be read to suggest that plainerror review should never apply to Rule 11 errors, when the Notes never made such an assertion and the cases never mentioned the plainerror/harmless-error distinction. Rather, the Committee should be taken at its word that the harmless-error provision was added because some courts read McCarthy to require that Rule 52(a)'s general harmless-error provision did not apply to Rule 11 proceedings. The Committee implied nothing more than it said, and it certainly did not implicitly repeal Rule 52(b) so far as it might cover a Rule 11 case. Pp. 66-71.
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