Thursday, April 21, 2016

Supreme Court Decides Illegal Re-Entry Sentencing Case


Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Molina-Martinez v. United States. The case involved a sentencing decision in a case involving an illegal reentry into the country conviction of a Mexican noncitizen. 

Oyez describes the case as follows:

Saul Molina-Martinez pleaded guilty to being in the United States illegally following deportation proceedings that stemmed from his felony convictions. The district court accordingly sentenced Molina-Martinez to 77 months in prison, pursuant to the sentencing range established in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for his criminal history category. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, prior sentences are counted as a single sentence if they were imposed on the same day unless the offenses in question were separated by an intervening arrest. Molina-Martinez’s prior offenses were not separated by an intervening arrest, so when his probation officer calculated his criminal history points and concluded that they placed him in category VI, he erred; Molina-Martinez should properly have been placed in category V, which carries a lower sentencing range of 70-87 months. Molina-Martinez appealed his sentence on the grounds that the district court erred in sentencing him based on the incorrect criminal history category. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that, despite the error in calculation, Molina-Martinez failed to show that the error affected his substantial rights and therefore affirmed his conviction and sentence.

The question presented to the Supreme Court was when an error in the application of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines results in the application of the wrong Guideline range to the defendant, should the appellate court presume that the error affected the defendant’s substantial rights?

The Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit.  Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, joined.  Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred in part and concurred in the judgment.

Justia synthezisez the holding:  Courts reviewing Guidelines errors cannot apply a categorical “additional evidence” rule where a court applied an incorrect range but sentenced the defendant within the correct range. A defendant who shows mistaken application of an incorrect, higher range will, generally, have demonstrated a reasonable probability of a different outcome, sufficient for relief if Rule 52(b)’s other requirements are met. In this case, given the sentence imposed, and that the court said nothing to suggest that it would have imposed the same sentence regardless of the range, there is at least a reasonable probability that the court would have imposed another sentence had it known that 70 months was the lowest sentence the Commission deemed appropriate. The Court noted that its holding is consistent with the approach taken by most Courts of Appeals and that remanding for resentencing is less costly than remanding for retrial.  

Doug Berman analyzes the Court's opinion for SCOTUSblog.


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