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SCOTUS holds plain errors about sentencing guidelines ordinarily merit relief

Rosales-Mireles v. United States, USSC No. 16-9493, 2018 WL 3013806, 6/18/18, reversing United States v. Rosales-Mireles, 850 F.3d 246 (5th Cir. 2017); SCOTUSblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

As we noted in our prior post, this case is primarily of interest to federal practitioners, dealing as it does with the federal sentencing guidelines and the doctrine of plain error, which is little-used in Wisconsin’s courts. Nevertheless, the seven-justice majority has some ringing language exhorting courts, in the interest of their own legitimacy, to cop to their own errors when those errors lead to unwarranted consequences for criminal defendants.

The probation office miscalculated Rosales-Mireles’s guidelines range, miscounting a prior conviction to raise the recommended minimum and maximum sentences. He ended up with a sentence near the middle of his actual, correct guidelines range and at the low end of the incorrect range. Because his lawyer didn’t object, he brings his claim for resentencing under the plain error doctrine. That requires him to show (1) an error that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned; (2) that the error is “clear or obvious” and (3) that the error affected his substantial rights. United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993).

He also has to meet a fourth criterion: that the error “seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Id. The Fifth Circuit held this meant the error had to “shock the conscience of the common man, serve as a powerful indictment against our system of justice, or seriously call into question the competence or integrity of the district judge.” It found this standard unmet and so permitted the acknowledged sentencing error to stand.

The Court rejects the Fifth Circuit’s formulation as too demanding. It holds, instead, that “A plain Guidelines error that affects a defendant’s substantial rights is precisely the type of error that ordinarily warrants relief under Rule 52(b).” (Slip op. at 8.) The court goes on:

To a prisoner, this prospect of additional time behind bars is not some theoretical or mathematical concept. Any amount of actual jail time is significant, and has exceptionally severe consequences for the incarcerated individual and for society which bears the direct and indirect costs of incarceration. The possibility of additional jail time thus warrants serious consideration in a determination whether to exercise discretion under Rule 52(b). It is crucial in maintaining public perception of fairness and integrity in the justice system that courts exhibit regard for fundamental rights and respect for prisoners as people.

(Slip op. at 8-9 (internal quotes and cites omitted)).

Perhaps of the greatest interest to the state practitioner is the Court’s recognition that “[i]n broad strokes, the public legitimacy of our justice system relies on procedures that are neutral, accurate, consistent, trustworthy and fair and that provide opportunites for error correction…. [W]hat reasonable citizen wouldn’t bear a rightly diminished view of the judicial process and its integrity if courts refused to correct obvious errors of their own devise that threaten to require individuals to linger longer in federal prison than the law demands?” In other words, perhaps the courts have an interest in getting it right that ought sometimes to overcome their fervent embrace of “finality.”

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