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SCOTUS: Advocating for Shorter Sentence Sufficient to Preserve Claim that Sentence Imposed Greater Than Necessary to Comply With 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) ruled that when a defendant argues before the trial court for a sentence shorter than that sought by the Government the defendant has preserved for appeal purposes his claim that the longer sentence ultimately imposed was greater than necessary to comply with the statutory purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

Gonzalo Holguin-Hernandez was convicted of drug-trafficking and sentenced to 60 months in prison and five years of supervised release.

At the time of this conviction, he was serving a period of supervised release from an earlier conviction. The Government requested the trial court to find that Holguin had violated the conditions of the earlier supervised release and impose an additional consecutive term of 12 to 18 months.

Holguin’s counsel argued that there “would be no reason under [18 U.S.C. §] 3553 that an additional consecutive sentence would get [Holguin’s] attention any better than” the 60 months in prison the court had already imposed for the trafficking offense. Counsel urged the court to impose “no additional time or certainly less than” 12 to 18 months. The trial court imposed a consecutive 12-month sentence. Holguin appealed, arguing that the 12-month sentence was unreasonably long in that it was “greater than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Holguin had forfeited the argument by failing to “object in the district court to the reasonableness of the sentence imposed.” The Fifth Circuit then reviewed for plain error and, finding none, affirmed.

SCOTUS, citing the differences on this issue among the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th, 11th, and D.C. Circuits, granted Holguin’s petition for certiorari.

SCOTUS observed that Congress has instructed courts to impose sentences that are sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to achieve certain basic objectives, including the need for “just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2). A district court is obliged to “consider all of the § 3553(a) factors to determine [the] appropriate sentence.” Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38 (2007). “By ‘informing the court [of the] action [he] wishes the court to take,’ Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 51(b), a party ordinarily brings to the court’s attention his objection to a contrary decision ... Rule 52(b).”

When a defendant advocates for a sentence shorter than the one ultimately imposed, judges — knowing their duty under § 3553(a) — “would ordinarily understand that a defendant in that circumstance was making the argument ... that the shorter sentence would be ‘sufficient’ and a longer sentence ‘greater than necessary’” to achieve the purposes of sentencing. Pepper v. United States, 562 U.S. 476 (2011). Thus, SCOTUS concluded that Holguin had properly preserved his claim for appeal.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the Fifth Circuit and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: Holguin-Hernandez v. United States, 140 S. Ct. 762 (2020).  

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Related legal case

Holguin-Hernandez v. United States



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