Published on: Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In Rosales-Mireles v. United States, No. 16-9463, the Supreme Court held that a miscalculation of a federal Sentencing Guidelines range that has determined to be  plain and to affect a defendant’s substantial rights calls for a court of appeals to exercise its discretion under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b).  Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Roberts, C.J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Gorsuch, JJ.  Justice Thomas, filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Alito, J. 

Petitioner Florencio Rosales-Mireles pleaded guilty to illegal reentry into the United States. Probation mistakenly counted a state misdemeanor conviction twice, resulting in a Guidelines range of 77 to 96 months imprisonment. But the correct Guideline range would have been 70-87 months. Rosales-Mireles did not object to the error in the District Court and was sentenced to 78 months of imprisonment.

Rosales-Mireles raised the issue on appeal. Rule 52(b) provides that a court of appeals may consider errors that are plain and affect substantial rights, even though they are raised for the first time on appeal. See United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732 (1993) (holding before appellate court may correct an error not raised at trial under Rule 52, there must be (1) error, (2) that is plain, and (3) that affects substantial rights; if all three conditions are met, court may exercise discretion to notice forfeited error, but only if (4) the error “seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings”). The Fifth Circuit found the error was plain and that it affected Rosales-Mireles’s substantial rights, but the court declined to remand the case for resentencing because it concluded that the defendant had not established that the error would seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings (Olano’s fourth-step). That’s because the Fifth Circuit said Rosales-Mireles failed to establish the error or the result “would shock the conscience.”

The Supreme Court disagreed, explaining that the Fifth Circuit’s “shock the conscience” standard too narrowly confines the court of appeals’ discretion.  What’s more, the Court explained the lower court’s formulation was not rooted in Rule 52(b) or the Court’s prior precedents applying plain-error doctrine, which have reversed judgments for plain error based on inadvertent or unintentional errors by the court or the parties.  Moreover, the Court said the effect of the Fifth Circuit’s heightened standard in sentencing cases is especially pronounced where Guideline errors increase the risk of unnecessary deprivation of liberty and  undermine the integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

The Training Division provides sentencing resource materials that help defender and CJA attorneys argue for the best sentence possible for defendants.