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April 20, 2016

Lots of interesting post-Booker guideline talk as federal defendant gets another sentencing win from SCOTUS

The Supreme Court today handed down its opinon this morning in Molina-Martinez v. US, No. 14-8913 (S. Ct. April 20, 2016) (available here), a little case about the application of plain error review of guideline calculation errors.  Excitingly, because the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy has lots of dicta about post-Booker sentencing, and because a concurrence by Justice Alito complains about some of that dicta, Molina-Martinez is now a must-read for all sentencing practitioners.  

I will likely have some further commentary about Molina-Martinez after I get a chance to read it thoroughly.  In the meantime, here are a couple of key passages from the majority opinion:

This case involves the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In sentencing petitioner, the District Court applied a Guidelines range higher than the applicable one. The error went unnoticed by the court and the parties, so no timely objection was entered. The error was first noted when, during briefing to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, petitioner himself raised the mistake. The Court of Appeals refused to correct the error because, in its view, petitioner could not establish a reasonable probability that but for the error he would have received a different sentence. Under that court’s decisions, if a defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within what would have been the correct Guidelines range, the defendant, on appeal, must identify “additional evidence” to show that use of the incorrect Guidelines range did in fact affect his sentence. Absent that evidence, in the Court of Appeals’ view, a defendant who is sentenced under an incorrect range but whose sentence is also within what would have been the correct range cannot demonstrate he has been prejudiced by the error....

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stands generally apart from other Courts of Appeals with respect to its consideration of unpreserved Guidelines errors. This Court now holds that its approach is incorrect.

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....

In the ordinary case the Guidelines accomplish their purpose. They serve as the starting point for the district court’s decision and anchor the court’s discretion in selecting an appropriate sentence. It follows, then, that in most cases the Guidelines range will affect the sentence. When that is so, a defendant sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range should be able to rely on that fact to show a reasonable probability that the district court would have imposed a different sentence under the correct range. That probability is all that is needed to establish an effect on substantial rights for purposes of obtaining relief under Rule 52(b).

And here is the start of the concurrence authored by Justice Alito:

I agree with the Court that the Fifth Circuit’s rigid approach to unpreserved Guidelines errors is incorrect. And I agree that petitioner has shown a reasonable probability that the District Court would have imposed a different sentence in his case if his recommended Guidelines sentence had been accurately calculated. Unlike the Court, however, I would not speculate about how often the reasonable probability test will be satisfied in future cases. The Court’s predictions in dicta about how plain-error review will play out are predicated on the view that sentencing judges will continue to rely very heavily on the Guidelines in the future, but that prediction may not turn out to be accurate. We should not make predictions about the future effects of Guidelines errors, particularly since some may misunderstand those predictions as veiled directives.

April 20, 2016 at 10:28 AM | Permalink


It's a sideshow of sorts but the U.S. v. Bryant case regarding Indian tribes is an interesting little case that was up for oral argument yesterday.


Posted by: Joe | Apr 20, 2016 11:37:20 AM

Molina-Martinez is also notable because it makes clear that the Supreme Court doesn't expect anything from district court judges who sentence within the Guidelines. The Court notes that the district court case imposed a within-Guideline sentence without providing any explanation. Doubling down on some troubling dicta from Rita, the Court states: "District courts, as a matter of course, use the Guidelines range to instruct them regarding the appropriate balance of the relevant federal sentencing factors." In other words, the independent balancing of 3553(a) factors that a judge is supposed to undertake under the Booker remedy can be satisfied by "us[ing] the Guidelines range."

The assumption that many district court judges are not conducting independent 3553(a) analysis can be found elsewhere in today's opinion: "The record in a case may show, for example, that the district court thought the sentence it chose was appropriate irrespective of the Guidelines range. Judges may find that some cases merit a detailed explanation of the reasons the selected sentence is appropriate. And that explanation could make it clear that the judge based the sentence he or she selected on factors independent of the Guidelines." In other words, in at least some cases, judges are imposing sentences that they would not have thought appropriate if not for the Guidelines. And, in at least some cases, judges are not basing their sentences on factor independent of the Guidelines. The majority does not decry these sentencing practices. Nor does it stop to note that imposing sentences justified only by the Guidelines is inconsistent with the Booker remedy. Booker adopted an advisory Guideline system, and it instructed sentencing judges to consider not only the Guidelines, but also the other 3553(a) factors.

In Nelson, the Supreme Court told us that district court judges may not "presume" that the Guideline range is the appropriate sentence. But Molina-Martinez seems to suggest that district court judges can ignore their obligation to conduct an independent 3553(a) analysis --- they just can't say that is what they are doing.

Posted by: Carissa Byrne Hessick | Apr 20, 2016 11:45:00 AM


I really appreciate your comments. The Supreme Court has created a seemingly irreconcilable conundrum. On the one hand, the advisory range is only advisory, not presumptively reasonable, and one of several co-equal factors under 3553(a). On the other hand, it is the "starting point and initial benchmark" for consideration of sentence.
As long as this persists, judges are (to different degrees) going to feel pressure to hew as closely to the ranges as possible. The Supreme Courts seems to know this, but doesn't want to cure it.

Posted by: USPO | Apr 20, 2016 7:02:55 PM

Was the sentence imposed beyond the length of the Guidelines? If so it is Beyond The Pale. Y'all know what that means don't ya?

Posted by: BarkinDog | Apr 21, 2016 1:09:54 PM

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