Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Supreme Court Rules Regarding Broken Plea Bargains

In a vote of 7-2 in the case of Puckett v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that where federal prosecutors violated a plea bargain with an accused, the violation must be preserved at the trial court level to avoid the application of Rule 52(b).

James Puckett was indicted for bank robbery in July 2002. He later negotiated a plea agreement with the government in which he agreed to plead guilty in return for the government agreeing to a reduction in his guideline offense level for acceptance of responsibility and a sentence at the lowest end of the applicable guideline range. Prior to sentencing, however, Puckett assisted in a scheme to defraud the postal service. When sentencing took place, the government opposed any reductions in Puckett's offense level for acceptance of responsibility. The district court then determined that even if it could grant the reduction, it would not. At no time did Puckett's counsel object to the government's new position.

On appeal, the 5th Circuit applied the plain-error standard under Rule 52(b) for unpreserved claims of error. It then ruled that although the error occurred and was obvious, Puckett had not demonstrated that the error affected his substantial rights. The court of appeals affirmed the sentence.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in 2008 to consider "a question that has divided the Federal Courts of Appeals: whether Rule 52(b)'s plain-error test applies to a forfeited claim, like Puckett's, that the Government failed to meet its obligations under a plea agreement." The Supreme Court concluded that Rule 52(b) does apply and that the decision of the lower court is affirmed.

The court stated:

In federal criminal cases, Rule 51(b) tells parties how to preserve claims of error: “by informing the court -- when the court ruling or order is made or sought -- of the action the party wishes the court to take, or the party's objection to the court's action and the grounds for that objection.” Failure to abide by this contemporaneous-objection rule ordinarily precludes the raising on appeal of the unpreserved claim of trial error. See United States v. Young, 470 U.S. 1, 15, and n. 12 (1985). Rule 52(b), however, recognizes a limited exception to that preclusion. The Rule provides, in full: “A plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the court's attention.”

We explained in United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993), that Rule 52(b) review -- so-called “plain-error review” -- involves four steps, or prongs. First, there must be an error or defect -- some sort of “[d]eviation from a legal rule” -- that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned, i.e., affirmatively waived, by the appellant. Id., at 732-733. Second, the legal error must be clear or obvious, rather than subject to reasonable dispute. See id., at 734. Third, the error must have affected the appellant’s substantial rights, which in the ordinary case means he must demonstrate that it “affected the outcome of the district court proceedings.” Ibid. Fourth and finally, if the above three prongs are satisfied, the court of appeals has the discretion to remedy the error -- discretion which ought to be exercised only if the error “‘seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.’” Id., at 736 (quoting United States v. Atkinson, 297 U.S. 157, 160 (1936)). Meeting all four prongs is difficult, “as it should be.” United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S. 74, 83, n. 9 (2004).

We have repeatedly cautioned that “[a]ny unwarranted extension” of the authority granted by Rule 52(b) would disturb the careful balance it strikes between judicial efficiency and the redress of injustice, see Young, supra, at 15; and that the creation of an unjustified exception to the Rule would be “[e]ven less appropriate,” Johnson v. United States, 520 U.S. 461, 466 (1997). . .

Application of plain-error review in the present context is consistent with our cases, serves worthy purposes, has meaningful effects, and is in any event compelled by the Federal Rules. While we recognize that the Government's breach of a plea agreement is a serious matter, "the seriousness of the error claimed does not remove consideration of it from the ambit of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure." Johnson, 520 U.S., at 466.

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