December 12, 2019
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. l:17-cr-00446-1 -
Virginia M. Kendall, Judge.
Bauer, Easterbrook, and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.
EVE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
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.
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.
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),
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 ...