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United States v. Williams

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

January 10, 2020

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Charles Williams, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued December 12, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. l:17-cr-00446-1 - Virginia M. Kendall, Judge.

          Before Bauer, Easterbrook, and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.


         The Supreme Court's recent decision in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S.Ct. 2191 (2019), upset what was once a seemingly settled question of federal law. The Courts of Appeals had unanimously concluded that 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), which prohibits several classes of people from possessing a firearm or ammunition, required the government to prove a defendant knowingly possessed a firearm or ammunition, but not that he knew he belonged to one of the prohibited classes. See, e.g., United States v. Lane, 267 F.3d 715, 720 (7th Cir. 2001). The Supreme Court in Rehaif corrected this misinterpretation and held that under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g), 924(a)(2), the government must show "that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it." 139 S.Ct. at 2194. Charles Williams had already pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm after a felony conviction when the Court issued Rehaif, and his plea reflected the law as it was in this Circuit before that decision. He seeks now, for the first time on direct appeal, to withdraw his plea. We conclude that he bears the burden of showing that his erroneous understanding of the elements of § 922(g) affected his substantial rights-his decision to plead guilty-before he may do so. He has failed to carry that burden, so we affirm the judgment.


         In 1998, an Illinois state court convicted Williams, then a teenager, of first-degree murder and sentenced him to thirty years' imprisonment. Williams was paroled in 2008, but had his parole revoked for the last few months of 2011 based on a domestic battery charge. He pleaded guilty to this offense and served 180 days in jail. Because of his murder conviction, the court could have sentenced him to up to three years' imprisonment. See 720 ILCS 5/12-3.2(b); 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-45.

         Williams had no other criminal history until 2017, when he traded cocaine to his employer for a firearm. His employer cooperated with the government and conducted a controlled buy to purchase the gun back from Williams. For this transaction, a grand jury indicted Williams on one count of possession of a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2).

         Williams pleaded guilty without a plea agreement, and the district court conducted a thorough colloquy to determine whether this plea was knowing and voluntary. The court confirmed Williams's admission that he possessed a firearm; that prior to his possessing that firearm, it had traveled in interstate commerce; and that he had been convicted of a crime punishable by a term of imprisonment exceeding one year. Nothing at the plea colloquy revealed definitively whether Williams had known, at the time he possessed the gun, that he had been so convicted. The district court later sentenced him to 96 months' imprisonment, a year below the bottom of his Guidelines range.

         Four months later, the Supreme Court decided Rehaif and held that an element of a conviction under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g), 924(a)(2), is the defendant's knowledge of his status (at least for felons and aliens illegally in the United States). 139 S.Ct. at 2200. For Williams, that means the government would have needed to prove-or he to admit-that he knew he had "been convicted in any court of[] a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year." 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).


         Williams asks this court to vacate his conviction and allow him to withdraw his guilty plea. Given the timing of Rehaif, Williams never moved to withdraw his plea in the district court, so we review his request to do so now only for plain error. Fed. R. Crim. P. 52(b); United States v. Vonn, 535 U.S. 55, 59 (2002); United States v. Zacahua, 940 F.3d 342, 344 (7th Cir. 2019). Plain error has four elements: (1) there was an error, (2) the error is clear and obvious, (3) the error affected the defendant's substantial rights, and (4) the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Zacahua, 940 F.3d at 344. The parties agree that, under Rehaif, the district court's failure to inquire into Williams's knowledge of his status or to confirm a factual basis for that element of the offense was an obvious error. See Henderson v. United States, 568 U.S. 266, 269 (2013) (holding that plain error is determined based on law at time of review). They dispute whether the error affected Williams's substantial rights and the integrity of judicial proceedings.

         The defendant ordinarily bears the burden of persuasion on the question whether an error affected substantial rights. Molina-Martinez v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1338, 1348 (2016); United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 734 (1993). This is true even for errors going to the validity of a guilty plea. United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S. 74, 82 (2004); Vonn, 535 U.S. at 59. To meet this burden, "a defendant who seeks reversal of his conviction after a guilty plea, on the ground that the district court committed plain error under Rule 11, must show a reasonable probability that, but for the error, he would not have entered the plea." Dominguez, 542 U.S. at 83.

         Williams argues that he should not be subject to the standard in Dominguez. He proposes that we adopt a new test that he calls "the supervening-decision doctrine," under which the government would bear the burden of proving that an error did not affect the defendant's rights (i.e., that it was harmless) if a supervening decision reverses ...

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