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Saul Molina-Martinez v. United States, USSC No. 14-8913, cert. granted 10/1/15

Question Presented:

Where an error in the application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines results in the application of the wrong Guideline range to a criminal defendant, should an appellate court presume, for purposes of plain-error review under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b), that the error affected the defendant’s substantial rights?

Lower court decision: United States v. Molina-Martinez, 588 Fed. Appx. 333 (5th Cir. 2014) (unpublished)


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The decision in this case will be of interest primarily to federal appellate lawyers, though the cert grant is worth noting because the case may give the Court the occasion to say something about appellate review of criminal sentences generally.

The background, as taken from Molina-Martinez’s statement of the Question Presented, is this: United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 734 (1993), held that to secure relief under plain-error review under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b), a defendant must show the error affected his substantial rights, which “in most cases [ ] means that the error must have been prejudicial[, i.e.,] [i]t must have affected the outcome of the district court proceedings.” Olano declined to “decide whether the phrase ‘affecting substantial rights’ is always synonymous with ‘prejudicial,”‘ though the Court suggested that “[some] errors [ ] should be presumed prejudicial [even] if the defendant cannot make a specific showing of prejudice.” Id. at 735.

Since Olano, at least two circuits have presumed an effect on the substantial rights of a defendant when there’s been an error that results in the application of an erroneous U.S. Sentencing Guideline range to a criminal defendant. United States v. Sabillon- Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1333-34 (10th Cir. 2014); United States v. Knight, 266 F.3d 203, 207-10 (3rd Cir. 2001). In Molina-Martinez’s case, however, the Fifth Circuit rejected such a presumption. The Court’s decision will resolve this split and may clarify what Olano meant when it said some errors should be presumed prejudicial.

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