FAMM has joined two criminal defense organizations in an “amicus” a/k/a “friend of the court” brief in a United States Supreme Court case, Rosales-Mireles v. United States, No. 16-9493.
The case involves a somewhat complicated issue about when an appeals court should reverse a sentence for what is called “plain error.” Plain error is one that nobody noticed when it occurred. In the normal course, problems and errors in court are identified and pointed out when they occur. Those kinds of errors can be addressed in an appeal. But when there is a mistake that was not pointed out when it occurred, the Appeals Court cannot correct it unless it passes the plain error test. The Supreme Court has told appellate courts to correct those errors that affect substantial rights if the error “seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public perception of judicial proceedings.”
In this case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to which Mr. Rosales-Mireles appealed, added more conditions to the plain error test. This meant that Appeals Court could not correct plain error, even if it met the Supreme Court test, unless the court also found that the error resulted in an outcome that would, among other things “shock the conscience of the common man.”
Mr. Rosales-Mireles was erroneously sentenced under the wrong guideline range of 77-96 months to 78 months. The correctly calculated guideline range was 70-87 months. No one noticed the mistake at the time.
On appeal, the government agreed that an error had been made but said, a mistake of a few months was not a big deal. The Fifth Circuit agreed a mistake had been made but refused to reverse his sentence to send the case back to the sentencing court to resentence him using the correct guideline because the error resulted in correct the mistake in his sentencing would not shock the conscience.
FAMM, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Association of Federal Defenders joined together to explain that even small amounts of time wrongfully spent in prison have meaning and that “any error which produces a longer prison sentence has constitutional significance,” among other things.
Because of the Guidelines’ technical nature, it is easy to lose sight of the human consequences of a Guidelines error. Even a seemingly minor error that produces only a few months of additional incarceration can have a profound impact on a prisoner’s family ties, medical treatment, and overall reintegration into society.
Our brief told the stories of three FAMM members, who graciously shared their stories with us. With their help, we were able to put a human face on what a few weeks or months in or out of prison can mean. In those short periods of time, life happens. Babies are born, parents die, daughters walk down the aisle — moments that can’t be recaptured.
“These and countless other real-world examples bring home the fundamental point … : No erroneous judicial decision that produces additional prison time — even if an amount of time that may, in the abstract, strike a judge as relatively trivial — can be considered acceptable.”
The case will be argued before the Supreme Court on February 21, 2018 and decided by the end of June 2018. We will keep you posted.