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SCOTUS: Unnoticed use of incorrect guideline range merits correction in most cases

Molina-Martinez v. United States, USSC No. 14-8913, 2016 WL 1574581 (April 20, 2016), reversing and remanding United States v. Molina-Martinez, 588 Fed. Appx. 333 (5th Cir. 2015); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

Emphasizing the Federal Sentencing Guidelines’ “central” role in sentencing because they “serve as the starting point for the district court’s decision and anchor the court’s discretion in selecting an appropriate sentence” (slip op. at 9, 15), the Supreme Court holds that the application of an erroneous Guidelines range will usually be sufficient to show a reasonable probability of a different outcome for the purposes of plain-error review under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b).

To get relief under Rule 52(b) for an error that was not brought to the judge’s attention, a defendant must show the error affected his substantial rights, which in most cases means that the error must have affected the outcome of the district court proceedings. United States v. Olano 507 U.S. 725, 734 (1993). Some circuits presumed a prejudicial effect when a judge applied an erroneous Guidelines range at sentencing, but the Fifth Circuit required the defendant to provide additional evidence that the incorrect range affected the sentence, at least when, as in Molina-Martinez’s case, the sentence was within the correct Guideline range.

Though it does not explicitly adopt the presumption of prejudice, it may have functionally done so, for in rejecting the Fifth Circuit’s approach the Court says:

Nothing in the text of Rule 52(b), its rationale, or the Court’s precedents supports a requirement that a defendant seeking appellate review of an unpreserved Guidelines error make some further showing of prejudice beyond the fact that the erroneous, and higher, Guidelines range set the wrong framework for the sentencing proceedings. This is so even if the ultimate sentence falls within both the correct and incorrect range. When a defendant is sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range—whether or not the defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within the correct range—the error itself can, and most often will, be sufficient to show a reasonable probability of a different outcome absent the error.

(Slip op. at 8-9). “Most often will be sufficient” does not mean “always,” however. While use of the wrong range will suffice to show prejudice in the “ordinary case” (slip op. at 12, 15), there may be case where, despite use of the wrong Guidelines range, a reasonable probability of prejudice doesn’t exist—for instance, where the record shows the judge thought the sentence was appropriate irrespective of the Guidelines range based on factors independent of the Guidelines. (Slip op. at 11).

Justices Thomas and Alito concur in the conclusion that prejudice was shown in this case, but can’t sign on to the prediction that use of an erroneous Guidelines range will be prejudicial in “most” cases because the test must always be applied case by case. (Concur. at 1, 5 & n.4).

This decision will be of interest to federal practitioners, but has no apparent impact on sentencing under Wisconsin law given our lack of sentencing guidelines and our  postconviction process for bringing sentencing errors to the sentencing judge’s attention.

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