LOCATION: Los Angeles City Hall
DOCKET NO.: 01-595
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 536 US 622 (2002)
ARGUED: Apr 24, 2002
DECIDED: Jun 24, 2002
Steven F. Hubachek - Appointed by the Court, argued the cause for the respondent
Theodore B. Olson - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
After immigration agents found 30 kilograms of marijuana in Angela Ruiz's luggage, federal prosecutors offered her a "fast track" plea bargain in which she would waive indictment, trial, and an appeal in exchange for a reduced sentence recommendation. The prosecutors' offer requires that the defendant waive the right to receive impeachment information relating to any informants or other witnesses, as well as information supporting any affirmative defense she raises if the case goes to trial. When Ruiz rejected the waiver, the prosecutors withdrew their offer, indicted her for unlawful drug possession, and she pleaded guilty. At sentencing, Ruiz asked the judge to grant her the same reduced sentence that the Government would have recommended had she accepted the plea bargain. The Government opposed her request, and the District Court denied it. In vacating the sentence, the Court of Appeals ruled that the Constitution prohibits defendants from waiving their right to certain impeachment information.
Do the Fifth and Sixth Amendments require federal prosecutors, before entering into a binding plea agreement with a criminal defendant, to disclose impeachment information relating to any informants or other witnesses?
Media for United States v. RuizAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 24, 2002 in United States v. Ruiz
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 24, 2002 in United States v. Ruiz
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinion of the Court in No. 01-595, United States versus Ruiz will be announced by Justice Breyer.
Stephen G. Breyer:
Now, this court in a number of cases has held that the constitution requires prosecutors to make available to a defendant before a trial -- that is important, before a trial -- exculpatory information, and that includes information where its evidence affecting witness credibility, at least where that credibility would likely determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
Now, the Ninth Circuit in this case held that the constitution not only requires that but it also requires prosecutors to give this kind of information which we call impeachment information to a defendant before the defendant engages in plea bargaining with the Government, and the Ninth Circuit added that the law forbids the defendant to waive the right, even if the defendant wants to.
We agreed to review the case because the Government told us that a requirement like that, to make all these information available even before plea bargaining and saying the defendant cannot waive it, a requirement like that would threaten the plea bargaining process.
We have reviewed the case and we conclude that even though the constitution does require providing this information before a trial, it does not require providing the information before plea bargaining or the entry of a guilty plea, nor does it forbid the defendant from waiving whatever right the defendant may have there.
In other words, we agree with the Government.
For one thing, we cannot find any theoretical justification for the Ninth Circuit’s rule.
The court’s earlier cases concerned the fairness of the trial.
They did not concern the plea bargain, and a plea of course doea have to be voluntary, and the defendant’s waiver of the right to trial has to be knowing, intelligent, and with awareness of the circumstances.
But these latter requirements do not demand provision of detailed trial-related information such as impeachment information for after all, a defendant can knowingly waive, for example, a right to remain silent and then answer a policeman questions without first knowing the specific questions that the policeman would intend to ask.
We cannot find support in the theory of the thing for the Ninth Circuit’s position and we were unable to find support in any other precedent of this court, and when we though of applying the due process rule directly to the circumstance, we found that the rule’s negative effects on the criminal justice system would outweigh any benefit that the rule could provide some defendants, and it would be on something of a random basis.
For these reasons, which we elaborate in our opinion, we reverse the Ninth Circuit.
Justice Thomas has filed a separate opinion concurring in our result.