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U.S. Supreme Court: Plainly Miscalculated Guidelines Range Requires Appellate Court to Vacate Sentence in the Ordinary Case

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that when a district court plainly miscalculates a defendant’s Guidelines range and the mistake affects the defendant’s substantial rights, appellate courts should exercise discretion under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) to vacate the sentence.

The Court’s June 18, 2018, opinion said in the “ordinary case,” a miscalculated and erroneous sentencing range usually establishes a reasonable probability that a defendant will serve more prison time than necessary, absent correction.

Flores Rosales-Mireles pleaded guilty to illegal reentry. The probation officer prepared the presentence report, which contained an error—one of Rosales-Mireles’ previous convictions was counted twice. No one noticed the error, which raised Rosales-Mireles’ Guidelines range from 70-87 months to 77-96 months. The district court sentenced Rosales-Mireles to 78 months.

Soon thereafter, Rosales-Mireles noticed the error. On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, she argued that the appellate court should vacate the sentence pursuant to Rule 52(b), which provides that “[a] plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the [district] court’s attention.”

The Fifth Circuit applied the framework established in United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993), to the claim of error. Olano established three conditions that must be met before a court may consider exercising its discretion to correct this kind of error: (1) the error must not have been intentionally relinquished or abandoned; (2) the error must be plain; and (3) the error must have affected the defendant’s substantial rights. Importantly, Circuit Courts of Appeals also have read a fourth prong into Olano—the error must have seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

The Fifth Circuit found the first three Olano conditions satisfied. The fourth prong, which the Fifth Circuit alone reads to mean that the error must “shock the conscience,” was not satisfied, however. The Fifth Circuit denied Rosales-Mireles relief on this ground.

Rosales-Mireles appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in order to correct the Fifth Circuit’s misarticulation of Olano’s fourth prong.

The Court said that, given the stakes—an error that seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings—the Fifth Circuit’s standard was “unduly restrictive.” Even though Rule 52(b) is permissive, not mandatory, nothing in the language of the rule or any Supreme Court precedent supports such a narrow reading of Olano’s fourth prong.

Perhaps more importantly, the Court said that an error such as the one made here “usually establishes a reasonable probability that a defendant will serve a prison sentence that is more than ‘necessary’ to fulfill the purpose of incarceration.” The Court reasoned that to the defendant, there is nothing theoretical about more prison time, and when a Guidelines range is miscalculated by the court and it is a relatively easy and inexpensive fix, the error should be corrected.

“[T]he public legitimacy of our justice system relies on procedures that are ‘neutral, accurate, consistent, trustworthy, and fair,’ and that ‘provide opportunities for error correction,’” wrote the Court. “In considering claims like Rosales-Mireles’, then, ‘what 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?’”

Because “[i]n the ordinary case, as here, the failure to correct a plain Guidelines error that affects a defendant’s substantial rights will seriously affect the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings,” the Fifth Circuit should have granted relief.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: Rosales-Mireles v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1897 (2018). 

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Rosales-Mireles v. United States



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