Last week, in Molina-Martinez v. United States, the Supreme Court rejected a narrow interpretation of the plain error doctrine that would require a defendant sentenced under the wrong guideline range, but whose sentence would have been within the proper range, to show “additional evidence” beyond the plain error, that the error violated his substantial rights.
In Molina-Martinez, the defendant pled guilty to a crime that appeared to have a guidelines range of 77-96 months and he was sentenced to 77 months. On appeal, he argued for the first time that the District Court miscalculated his Guidelines range, which should have been 70 to 87 months. The Fifth Circuit agreed but held that the defendant could not satisfy the plain error requirement (F.R.Cr.P. Rule 52(b) – an obvious error that affects “substantial rights.”). It reasoned that a defendant whose sentence falls within what would have been the correct Guidelines range must, on appeal, produce “additional evidence” to establish beyond the mistake itself to show that the error affected his sentence. Based on earlier Fifth Circuit caselaw, if a defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within what would have been the correct guidelines range, the defendant must identify “additional evidence” to make that showing.
Most Courts of Appeals have adopted a less demanding standard under which a district court’s mistaken use off the wrong guidelines rang can itself serve as evidence of an effect on substantial rights, without more. See, e.g., United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1333 (10th Cir. 2014) (application of an erroneous Guidelines range “‘runs the risk of affecting the ultimate sentence regardless of whether the court ultimately imposes a sentence within or outside’” that range) (emphasis added); United States v. Vargem, 747 F.3d 724, 728–29 (9th Cir. 2014); United States v. Story, 503 F.3d 436, 440 (6th Cir. 2007). These courts recognize that, in most cases, when a district court uses an incorrect range, there is a reasonable probability that the defendant’s sentence would have been different without the error. The Supreme Court agreed, and rejected the “additional evidence” requirement for plain error review.
- Molina-Martinez v. United States, No. 14-8913, 2016 WL 1574581 (U.S. Apr. 20, 2016) (Court’s Official PDF).
- Molina-Martinez v. United States SCOTUS page.
- United States v. Martinez-Molina, 588 Fed. App’x 333 (5th Cir. Dec. 17, 2014).
- United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1333 (10th Cir. 2014).
- United States v. Vargem, 747 F.3d 724, 728–29 (9th Cir. 2014).
- United States v. Story, 503 F.3d 436, 440 (6th Cir. 2007).
- United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual – 2015 Version.