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Hughes v. United States, No. 17–155, 584 U. S. ____ (2018)

Eric Hughes accepted a plea deal in 2013 after being accused of four charges related to drug conspiracy. He pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and being a felon in possession of a gun in return for the dismissal of the other two charges and the withholding of information regarding previous drug felonies. For the two guilty charges, Hughes agreed to serve a term of 180 months.

In his plea deal, no reference was made to the Guidelines range, however, upon accepting the deal, the District Court noted that the deal was “compatible” with the Guideline ranges. At the time, the recommended range for Hughes’s crimes was set at 188-235 months. Such a consideration by the District Court is required before accepting any plea deal.

Upon the adoption of amendment 782 to the Sentencing guidelines, a crime like Hughes’s would have a recommended range of 151-188 months. Hughes petitioned the court for a reduction in sentence under Amendment 782. The court denied Hughes a reduction on the grounds that Hughes’s plea agreement did not reference the guideline ranges and, therefore, his sentence was not based on the guidelines in a way that would warrant a reduction.

The Court indicated that “the controlling issue here is whether a defendant may seek relief under §3582(c)(2) if he entered a plea agreement specifying a particular sentence under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C).”  This is also called a “type-c” agreement.

 

Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy said that “a sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is ‘based on’ the defendant’s Guidelines range so long as that range was part of the framework the district court relied on in imposing the sentence or accepting the agreement.”

 

“In the typical sentencing case there will be no question that the defendant’s Guidelines range was a basis for his sentence. The Sentencing Reform Act requires a district court to calculate and consider a defendant’s Guidelines range in every case.”  

 

The Court went to say that “a defendant’s Guidelines range is both the starting point and a basis for his ultimate sentence” and that agreed sentences under 11(c)(1)(C) were no different.  “Although in a Type-C agreement the Government and the defendant may agree to a specific sentence, that bargain is contingent on the district court accepting the agreement and its stipulated sentence.”  Further, the court noted that “the Sentencing Guidelines prohibit district courts from accepting Type-C agreements without first evaluating the recommended sentence in light of the defendant’s Guidelines range.”  Thus, although the plea deal did not directly reference the Guidelines, they are understood to have played a role in the sentence given that the Court is required to consider the guidelines before accepting a plea deal.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals and the case was remanded for further consideration.  No. 17–155, 584 U. S. ____ (2018)

No. 16–9493. Argued February 21, 2018—Decided June 18, 2018

Each year, district courts sentence thousands of individuals to imprisonment for violations of federal law. To help ensure certainty and fairness in those sentences, federal district courts are required to consider the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines. Prior to sentencing, the United States Probation Office prepares a pre-sentence investigation report to help the court determine the applicable Guidelines range. Ultimately, the district court is responsible for ensuring the Guidelines range it considers is correct. At times, however, an error in the calculation of the Guidelines range goes unnoticed by the court and the parties. On appeal, such errors not raised in the district court may be remedied under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b), provided that, as established in United States v. Olano, 507 U. S. 725: (1) the error was not “intentionally relinquished or abandoned,” (2) the error is plain, and (3) the error “affected the defendant’s substantial rights,” Molina-Martinez v. United States, 578

  1. S. ___, ___. If those conditions are met, “the court of appeals should exercise its discretion to correct the forfeited error if the error ‘ “seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” ’ ” Id., at ___. This last consideration is often called Olano’s fourth prong. The issue here is when a Guidelines error that satisfies Olano’s first three conditions warrants relief under the fourth prong.

 

Petitioner Florencio Rosales-Mireles pleaded guilty to illegal reentry into the United States. In calculating the Guidelines range, the Probation Office’s presentence report mistakenly counted a state misdemeanor conviction twice. As a result, the report yielded a Guidelines range of 77 to 96 months, when the correctly calculated range would have been 70 to 87 months. Rosales-Mireles did not object to the error in the District Court, which relied on the miscalculated Guidelines range and sentenced him to 78 months of imprisonment. On appeal, Rosales-Mireles challenged the incorrect Guidelines range for the first time. The Fifth Circuit found that the Guidelines error was plain and that it affected Rosales-Mireles’ substantial rights because there was a “reasonable probability that he would have been subject to a different sentence but for the error.” The Fifth Circuit nevertheless declined to remand the case for resentencing, concluding that Rosales-Mireles had not established that the error would seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings because neither the error nor the resulting sentence “would shock the conscience.”

 

Held: A miscalculation of a Guidelines sentencing range that has been determined to be plain and to affect a defendant’s substantial rights calls for a court of appeals to exercise its discretion under Rule 52(b)to vacate the defendant’s sentence in the ordinary case. Pp. 6–15.

 

(a) Although “Rule 52(b) is permissive, not mandatory,” Olano, 507

  1. S., at 735, it is well established that courts “should” correct a forfeited plain error affecting substantial rights “if the error ‘seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings,’ ” id., at 736. Like the narrow rule rejected in Olano, which would have called for relief only for a miscarriage of justice, the Fifth Circuit’s shock-the-conscience standard too narrowly confines the extent of the court of appeals’ discretion. It is not reflected in Rule 52(b), nor in how the plain-error doctrine has been applied by this Court, which has reversed judgments for plain error based on inadvertent or unintentional errors by the court or the parties below and has remanded cases involving such errors, including sentencing errors, for consideration of Olano’s fourth prong. The errors are not required to amount to a “powerful indictment” of the system. The Fifth Circuit’s emphasis on the district judge’s “competence or integrity” also unnecessarily narrows Olano’s instruction to correct an error if it seriously affects “judicial proceedings.” Pp. 6–8.

 

(b) The effect of the Fifth Circuit’s heightened standard is especially pronounced in cases like this one. An error resulting in a higher range than the Guidelines provide usually establishes a reasonable probability that a defendant will serve a prison sentence greater than “necessary” to fulfill the purposes of incarceration, 18 U. S. C. §3553(a). See Molina-Martinez, 578 U. S., at ___. That risk of unnecessary deprivation of liberty particularly undermines the fairness,integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings in the context of a plain Guidelines error because Guidelines miscalculations ultimately result from judicial error, as the district court is charged in the first instance with ensuring the Guidelines range it considers is correct. Moreover, remands for resentencing are relatively inexpensive proceedings compared to remands for retrial. Ensuring the accuracy of Guidelines determinations also furthers the Sentencing Commission’s goal of achieving uniformity and proportionality in sentencing more broadly, since including uncorrected sentences based on incorrect Guidelines ranges in the data the Commission collects could undermine the Commission’s ability to make appropriate revisions to the Guidelines. Because any exercise of discretion at the fourth prong of Olano inherently requires “a case-specific and fact-intensive” inquiry, Puckett v. United States, 556 U. S. 129, 142, countervailing factors may satisfy the court of appeals that the fairness, integrity,and public reputation of the proceedings will be preserved absent correction. But there are no such factors in this case. Pp. 8–11.

 

(c) The Government and dissent maintain that even though the Fifth Circuit’s standard was inaccurate, Rosales-Mireles is still not entitled to relief. But their arguments are unpersuasive. They caution that granting this type of relief would be inconsistent with the Court’s statements that discretion under Rule 52(b) should be exercised “sparingly,” Jones v. United States, 527 U. S. 373, 389, and reserved for “exceptional circumstances,” Meyer v. Kenmore Granville Hotel Co., 297 U. S. 160. In contrast to the Jones remand, however, no additional jury proceedings would be required in a remand for re-sentencing based on a Guidelines miscalculation. Plus, the circumstances of Rosales-Mireles’ case are exceptional under this Court’s precedent, as they are reasonably likely to have resulted in a longer prison sentence than necessary and there are no countervailing factors that otherwise further the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

 

The Government and dissent also assert that Rosales-Mireles’ sentence is presumptively reasonable because it falls within the corrected Guidelines range. But a court of appeals can consider a sentence’s substantive reasonableness only after it ensures “that the district court committed no significant procedural error, such as failing to calculate (or improperly calculating) the Guidelines range.” Gall v. United States, 552 U. S. 38, 51. If a district court cannot properly determine whether, considering all sentencing factors, including the correct Guidelines range, a sentence is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” 18 U. S. C. §3553(a), the resulting sentence would not bear the reliability that would support a“presumption of reasonableness” on review. See 552 U. S., at 51. And regardless of its ultimate reasonableness, a sentence that lacks reliability because of unjust procedures may well undermine public perception of the proceedings.

 

Finally, the Government and dissent maintain that the Court’s decision will create an opportunity for “sandbagging” that Rule 52(b) is supposed to prevent. But that concern fails to account for the realities at play in sentencing proceedings, where it is highly speculative that a defendant would benefit from a strategy of deliberately forgoing an objection in the district court, with hopes of arguing for reversal under plain-error review later. Pp. 12–14.

 

SOTOMAYOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS,

  1. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined.
Class v. United States Plea

Rodney Class was arrested and charged with federal possession of “readily accessible” firearms on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. He pled guilty to this charge in federal district court. However, in Class’s plea agreement there was no express waiver of Class’s right to appeal his conviction. Class subsequently appealed his conviction on the grounds that the statute violated his Second Amendment right to bear arms and the statute was unconstitutionally vague.

The question before the Court was relatively short. Can Rodney Class appeal his conviction even though he pled guilty? Does the government’s plea agreement inherently bar these claims when making a plea deal or does Class and those like him need to expressly state in their plea agreement that they are reserving the right to appeal on certain grounds?

Class’s main contention in oral argument, argued by Jessica Amunson, is pretty simple. Because Class did not explicitly waive these two appeal charges, he is allowed to use them as an appeal. By the mere fact of pleading guilty, this did not waive those rights.

The government’s argument revolves around Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 11 deals with plea deals and plea agreements. The government citied the Advisory Committee notes of Rule 11, arguing that the writers intended that unconditional pleas of guilty “operate as a waiver of all non-jurisdictional claims. The problem is that Rule 11 has notoriously been amended many times over the years, confusing all courts of its true meaning.

One idea that was thrown around by every party, including the Justices, was the Blackledge-Menna doctrine. Blackledge-Menna are two cases from the 1970s. Class’s argument relies on this doctrine, which stated that criminal defendants were allowed to raise certain constitutional challenges on appeal despite the fact that they had already pled guilty. Blackledge dealt with a vindictive persecution claim and Menna allowed a defendant to bring up a double-jeopardy claim. Class argued that his Second Amendment claim would fall into the same lines as these claims. The government argued that while they do not disagree with Blackledge-Menna, those cases are only applied to those specific claims and the doctrine cannot be broaden.

Blackledge-Menna is not law, it is doctrine. So the Supreme Court traditionally would not want to issue an opinion based on doctrine alone. The Supreme Court likes tests to apply. Class argued that the test should be what Judge Henry Friendly coined many years ago on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. A guilty plea does not waive an appeal of any constitutional ground that would prevent the state from obtaining a valid conviction.

From the transcript of the oral argument, the Justices collectively pushed against the government’s assertions. Justice Breyer’s comments late into the government’s time summed up many of the Justices opinions about when a defendant pleads guilty and the consequences of that plea. Just because a defendant pleads guilty to the crime at hand does not mean that they admit to the statute itself.

“But what you haven’t admitted is that the statute, for example, is a valid statue. You haven’t admitted that. And another thing you haven’t admitted, you haven’t admitted vindictive prosecution because I did it… but they’re prosecuting me for a bad reason, and they can’t do that.”

This is what Class is arguing. He is arguing that while he did possess firearms in a readily accessible area on Capitol grounds, the statute itself that forbids this act is not constitutional. From Justice Breyer’s argument, defendant Class should not be barred from claiming a constitutional violation just by pleading guilty.

Even more of the hardliners on criminal law fell in line with liberal Justice Breyer. Justice Gorsuch stated a similar idea when a defendant pleads guilty “you’re not admitting even to what the statute says; you’re admitting to what’s in the indictment.”

Class’s argument seems pretty solid. Just because a defendant pleads guilty, it shouldn’t bar a constitutional appeal if the plea agreement is silent on the issue. Plea agreements can be extremely broad and cover a lot of ground. There is a whole legal argument if those plea agreements are fair and legal themselves. Regardless, federal and state courts allow the government to offer plea agreements that bar appeals. It’s just a matter of sticking the clause into the agreement itself. In Class’s case, the government did not add a clause into the plea agreement.  

The law firm of Jeremy Gordon has been practicing federal criminal appeals and post-conviction law since 2012. We have had successful outcomes in more than 60 cases in the past three years. Our entire staff is committed to providing excellent service to our clients and their families. We encourage you to contact our office today to visit with us on how we might be able to help you or your loved one get the representation they deserve.