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Rosales-Mireles v. United States

United States Supreme Court

June 18, 2018

FLORENCIO ROSALES-MIRELES, PETITIONER
v.
UNITED STATES

          Argued February 21, 2018

         CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT No. 16-9493.

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 presentence 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 U.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 U.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 con- cern 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.

850 F.3d 246, reversed and remanded.

          OPINION

          SOTOMAYOR, JUSTICE.

         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 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. This case concerns the bounds of that discretion, and whether a miscalculation of the United States Sentencing Guidelines 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. The Court holds that such an error will in the ordinary case, as here, seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings, and thus will warrant relief.

         I

         A

         Each year, thousands of individuals are sentenced to terms of imprisonment for violations of federal law. District courts must determine in each case what constitutes a sentence that is "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, " 18 U.S.C. §3553(a), to achieve the overarching sentencing purposes of "retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation." Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 325 (2011); 18 U.S.C. §§3551(a), 3553(a)(2). Those decisions call for the district court to exercise discretion. Yet, to ensure "'certainty and fairness'" in sentencing, district courts must operate within the framework established by Congress. United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 264 (2005) (quoting 28 U.S.C. §991(b)(1)(B)).

         The Sentencing Guidelines serve an important role in that framework. "'[D]istrict courts must begin their analysis with the Guidelines and remain cognizant of them throughout the sentencing process.'" Peugh v. United States, 569 U.S. 530, 541 (2013) (quoting Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 50, n. 6 (2007); emphasis in original). Courts are not bound by the Guidelines, but even in an advisory capacity the Guidelines serve as "a meaningful benchmark" in the initial determination of a sentence and "through the process of appellate review." 569 U.S., at 541.

         Of course, to consult the applicable Guidelines range, a district court must first determine what that range is. This can be a "complex" undertaking. Molina-Martinez v. United States, 578 U.S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 4). The United States Probation Office, operating as an arm of the district court, first creates a presentence investigation report, "which includes a calculation of the advisory Guidelines range it considers to be applicable." Id., at ___ (slip op., at 3); see Fed. Rules Crim. Proc. 32(c)(1)(A), (d)(1); United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §1B1.1(a) (Nov. 2016) (USSG). That calculation derives from an assessment of the "offense characteristics, offender characteristics, and other matters that might be relevant to the sentence." Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 342 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). Specifically, an offense level is calculated by identifying a base level for the offense of conviction and adjusting that level to account for circumstances specific to the defendant's case, such as how the crime was committed and whether the defendant accepted responsibility. See USSG §§1B1.1(a)(1)-(5). A numerical value is then attributed to any prior offenses committed by the defendant, which are added together to generate a criminal history score that places the defendant within a particular criminal history category. §§1B1.1(a)(6), 4A1.1. Together, the offense level and the criminal history category identify the applicable Guidelines range. §1B1.1(a)(7).

         B

         The district court has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that the Guidelines range it considers is correct, and the "[f]ailure to calculate the correct Guidelines range constitutes procedural error." Peugh, 569 U.S., at 537. Given the complexity of the calculation, however, district courts sometimes make mistakes. It is unsurprising, then, that "there will be instances when a district court's sentencing of a defendant within the framework of an incorrect Guidelines range goes unnoticed" by the parties as well, which may result in a defendant raising the error for the first time on appeal. Molina-Martinez, 578 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 4). Those defendants are not entirely without recourse.

         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) provides that "[a] plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the [district] court's attention." In United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993), the Court established three conditions that must be met before a court may consider exercising its discretion to correct the error. "First, there must be an error that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned. Second, the error must be plain-that is to say, clear or obvious. Third, the error must have affected the defendant's substantial rights." Molina-Martinez, 578 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 4) (citations omitted). To satisfy this third condition, the defendant ordinarily must " 'show a reasonable probability that, but for the error, ' the outcome of the proceeding would have been different." Ibid. (quoting United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S. 74, 76, 82 (2004)). Once those three conditions have been 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." Molina-Martinez, 578 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 4-5) (internal quotation marks omitted). It is this last consideration, often called Olano's fourth prong, that we are asked to clarify and apply in this case.

         C

         Petitioner Florencio Rosales-Mireles pleaded guilty to illegal reentry in violation of 8 U.S.C. §§ 1326(a), (b)(2). The Probation Office in its presentence investigation report mistakenly counted a 2009 state conviction of misdemeanor assault twice. This double counting resulted in a criminal history score of 13, which placed Rosales-Mireles in criminal history category VI. Combined with his offense level of 21, that yielded a Guidelines range of 77 to 96 months. Had the criminal history score been calculated correctly, Rosales-Mireles would have been in criminal history category V, and the resulting Guidelines range would have been 70 to 87 months. See USSG ch. 5, pt. A (sentencing table).

         Rosales-Mireles did not object to the double-counting error before the District Court. Relying on the erroneous presentence investigation report, and after denying Rosales-Mireles' request for a downward departure, the District Court sentenced Rosales-Mireles to 78 months of imprisonment, one month above the lower end of the Guidelines range that everyone thought applied.

         On appeal, Rosales-Mireles argued for the first time that his criminal history score and the resulting Guidelines range were incorrect because of the double counting of his 2009 conviction. Because he had not objected in the District Court, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reviewed for plain error. 850 F.3d 246, 248 (2017).

         Applying the Olano framework, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Rosales-Mireles had established that the Guidelines miscalculation constituted an error that was plain, satisfying Olano s first two conditions. It also held that the error affected Rosales-Mireles' substantial rights, thus satisfying the third condition, because there was "a reasonable probability that he would have been subject to a different sentence but for the error." 850 F.3d, at 249. In reaching that conclusion, the Fifth Circuit rejected the Government's argument that Rosales-Mireles would have received the same sentence regardless of the Guidelines error, because the District Court had ...


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