Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
Before: Wald, Ginsburg, and Henderson, Circuit Judges.
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT
Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge Ginsburg.
Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge Henderson.
Wesley Dewalt pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully possessing an unregistered sawed-off shotgun in violation of 26 U.S.C. Section(s) 5861(d). The district court sentenced Dewalt to 33 months in prison, to be served after he completes an unrelated state sentence. Dewalt asks this court to vacate the plea on the ground that the district judge who presided at the plea hearing failed in two respects to comply with Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Dewalt also challenges his sentence as inconsistent with the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Because we conclude that the district court failed, in violation of Rule 11(c)(1), adequately to notify Dewalt of the nature of the charge to which he was pleading guilty, we vacate the plea without reaching Dewalt's other claims.
At Dewalt's plea hearing the Government said it could prove the following facts: Police officers observed Dewalt carrying a blue tote bag through a bus terminal in Washington, D.C. The bag looked "a little odd" to the officers, and Dewalt appeared to them to be "having difficulty carrying [it]." The officers approached Dewalt, and asked for and received his permission to search the bag. Inside the officers found a J.C. Higgins .16 gauge bolt action shotgun with a sawed-off barrel 161/4 inches long, and several rounds of ammunition. A check with the National Firearms Registry revealed that neither the shotgun nor the ammunition was registered.
Based upon Dewalt's possession of this weapon and ammunition, the Government obtained a three-count indictment charging him with one violation of federal law, 26 U.S.C. Section(s) 5861(d) (unlawful possession of an unregistered firearm), and two violations of the District of Columbia Code, Section(s) 6-2311(a) (same) and 6-2361(3) (unlawful possession of unregistered ammunition). Dewalt pleaded guilty to the federal charge in exchange for which the Government agreed to dismiss the two D.C. charges. On appeal Dewalt argues that his guilty plea was not taken in accordance with the requirements of Rule 11.
A guilty plea is not "voluntary in the sense that it constitute[s] an intelligent admission that [the defendant] committed the offense unless the defendant received "real notice of the true nature of the charge against him, the first and most universally recognized requirement of due process'." Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637, 645 (1976), quoting Smith v. O'Grady, 312 U.S. 329, 334 (1941). "Real notice of the true nature of the charge" means notice sufficient to give the defendant "an understanding of the law in relation to the facts" of his case, McCarthy v. United States, 394 U.S. 459, 466 (1969). Specifically, a defendant's ignorance of the mens rea element of the offense with which he is charged renders his guilty plea involuntary as a matter of constitutional law. Henderson, 426 U.S. at 645-46 (defendant did not know that to convict him of second-degree murder state would have to prove he assaulted victim "with a design to effect  death"); see also United States v. Frye, 738 F.2d 196, 199-201 (7th Cir. 1984) ("the defendant was waiving her right to make the prosecution prove to a judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt not only that she participated in the check-kiting scheme, but also that she did so with a culpable state of mind").
That the defendant's guilty plea is constitutionally infirm if he pleaded without understanding the nature of the offense charged does not imply a constitutional obligation on the part of the court to inform the defendant about the nature of the charge, Henderson, 426 U.S. at 644. In federal courts, however, Rule 11 prescribes a procedure "designed to assist the district judge in making the constitutionally required determination that a defendant's guilty plea is truly voluntary ... [and] to produce a complete record at the time the plea is entered of the factors relevant to this voluntariness determination." McCarthy, 394 U.S. at 465. Indeed, "Rule 11 is designed to eliminate any need to resort to a later [i.e., post-conviction] fact-finding proceeding in [the] highly subjective area" of voluntariness." Id. at 469. To this end, Rule 11(c)(1) requires that the district judge who presides at the plea hearing inform the defendant of "the nature of the charge to which the plea is offered."
Neither Rule 11 nor the case law, however, specifies the minimum that a district judge must do to inform the defendant of the nature of the charge in question; rather, the plea hearing must meet a standard aptly stated by the Seventh Circuit: "[A] court must have a colloquy with the defendant that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the defendant understood the nature of the charge." Frye, 738 F.2d at 201. See also United States v. Dayton, 604 F.2d 931, 937-38 (5th Cir. 1979) (en banc); United States v. Marks, 38 F.3d 1009, 1011-12 (8th Cir. 1994) (where record shows defendant understood charge, court's failure to describe charge with greater specificity does not require reversal); United States v. Musa, 946 F.2d 1297, 1304 (7th Cir. 1991) ("totality of the circumstances").
Dewalt pleaded guilty to a charge that he violated 26 U.S.C. Section(s) 5861(d), which makes it unlawful for any person "to receive or possess a firearm which is not registered to him in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record." As used in the statute, a "firearm" is defined as any weapon of a type listed at 26 U.S.C. Section(s) 5845(a). In this case, the Government charged that Dewalt possessed a firearm of the sort described in Section(s) 5845(a)(2)-namely, "a weapon made from a shotgun if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than ...