United States v. Vonn

PETITIONER:United States
LOCATION:Los Angeles City Hall

DOCKET NO.: 00-973
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 535 US 55 (2002)
ARGUED: Nov 06, 2001
DECIDED: Mar 04, 2002

Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben – argued the cause for the United States
David M. Porter – for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Michael R. Dreeben – Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States
Monica Knox – Los Angeles, California, argued the cause for the respondent
Saul M. Pilchen – for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance

Facts of the case

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 11(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). On February 28, 1997, Alphonso Vonn was charged with federal bank robbery and firearm crimes. That day a Magistrate Judge twice advised him of his constitutional rights. Vonn also 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. Appealing his convictions, Vonn raised Rule 11 for the first time. The Court of Appeals agreed that there had been error and vacated the convictions.


Does a criminal defendant who lets a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 11 error pass without objection in the trial court bear the burden of showing plain error under Rule 52? May a court reviewing Rule 11 error examine the entire record begun at the defendant’s first appearance in the matter leading to his eventual plea when considering the effect of any error on the defendant’s substantial rights?

Media for United States v. Vonn

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 06, 2001 in United States v. Vonn

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 04, 2002 in United States v. Vonn

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in No. 00-973, United States versus Vonn will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure aims to assure that defendants who plead guilty do so knowingly and voluntarily.

It does this by compelling judges to advice defendants of the nature of the charges against them and the rights they will give up by not going to trial.

This advice is known as Rule 11 colloquially and it occurs at the hearing when a defendant pleads guilty.

Rule 11 is unique among the Federal Rules in containing its own review provisions Subsection H, which provides that any error under the Rule that the government can show did not prejudiced the defendant will not affect the validity of the plea.

Subsection (h) closely tracks the language of Rule 52(a), the Rule’s general harmless-error provision but unlike the General Rule 52, subsection (h) is not accompanied by a plain error provision giving defendants who do not make a timely objection and opportunity to have the error corrected if they can carry the converse burden of showing that the error did not prejudiced them.

In 1977, the respondent, Alphonso Vonn pleaded guilty to three charges arising out of a bank robbery.

At two separate plea hearings, the district judge adviced him of the rights he would relinquish by foregoing a trial but the judge felt just short of what Rule 11 requires where he failed to tell Vonn that if he proceeded to trial, he will have the right to counsel at the trial.

On appeal Vonn argued for the first time that his guilty pleas on all three counts were invalid because the judge skipped this one item at advice.

The Ninth Circuit agreed holding that under Rule 11, the government bears the burden of showing that Rule 11 error to the harmless whether or on not the defendant or his lawyer brought that error to the attention of the District Judge in the first place.

Because the government could not satisfy this burden without making reference to, we advice that Vonn received in proceedings separate from the Rule 11 colloquies.

The Ninth Circuit vacated his guilty pleas.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk of the Court, we vacate and remand.

We hold two things: first, that a defendant who lets Rule 11 error passed without objection in the trial court must bear the burden in the Court of Appeals of showing prejudice; and second, that the revealing court must look to the entire trial record to make this finding not just the record of the Rule 11 colloquie.

We reject Vonn’s argument that Congress’ explicit command in Rule 11(h) that harmless-error is to be disregarded.

It was meant to eliminate a defendant’s burden under the Rule 52(b) plain error provision.

Although it is a familiar count on the statutory interpretation that the expression of one item in a group of commonly associated items excludes all the others, what evidence of congressional intent there is, here it shows that Congress did not intend so settle a message.

Rather in enacting Rule 11(h), Congress simply sought to fall a trend that took hold among Courts of Appeals following this court’s decision in the case called McCarthy v. United States, that no Rule 11 slip up no matter how minor could ever be harmless-error.

Rule 11(h) says it can be harmless-error.

The Rule that Vonn proposes that the government always has the burden of showing harmlessness, whether or not that error was first brought to the District Judge’s attention, undercuts Congress’ goal evident elsewhere in the Federal Rules that defendants raise any objections to their pleas before sentencing and not afterward.

Finally, we find no support for the Ninth Circuit’s Rule that a reviewing court must ignore evidence already on the record but outside the four corners of the plea hearing.

When the evidence shows that a defendant was not actually harmed by the judge’s failure to comply fully with Rule 11.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.