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Justices Afford a Small Break on Sentence Appeals (1)

Feb. 26, 2020, 3:15 PMUpdated: Feb. 26, 2020, 6:00 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court made it a little easier for criminal defendants to challenge their sentences.

The justices ruled on Wednesday that those convicted of a crime don’t have to explicitly object to a sentence to preserve an appeal if they’ve already advocated for a lighter punishment. The unanimous opinion was written by Justice Stephen Breyer.

Their ruling technically affords defendants a more favorable standard of review on appeal, but its practical impact is unclear. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, emphasizing the limited nature of the decision.

During oral argument in December, Justice Brett Kavanaugh—who previously served as a Washington federal appears court judge—noted that the standards already in place are very deferential to lower courts, making it “exceedingly rare” that an appellate court will find that a sentence was proper under one standard but not under the other.

However rare that might be, Gonzalo Holguin-Hernandez’s lawyer said the ruling will help defendants.

“The rule technically affects every federal criminal defendant who challenges the length of his or her sentence on appeal,” O’Melveny’s Kendall Turner said following the decision. “It particularly helps defendants in the Fifth Circuit,” she said of the federal appeals court that covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. “Those defendants are now able to challenge the length of their sentences on appeal under the proper standard of review.”

The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

Breyer noted the government actually agreed with Holguin-Hernandez’s position that the approach taken by the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in ruling against him was inconsistent with the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Given that somewhat unusual situation, the justices appointed Kirkland’s K. Winn Allen to argue in favor of upholding the Fifth Circuit, which the high court declined to do, a move that defense groups applauded.

“More than a decade’s worth of experience has shown that the Fifth Circuit’s rule did not result in better-informed or more efficient sentencings and served only to block legitimate challenges to defendants’ sentences,” said Wilkinson Walsh’s Chanakya A. Sethi, lead counsel on an amicus brief supporting Holguin-Hernandez on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Association of Federal Defenders. “We are pleased that the Supreme Court unanimously rejected it.”

Holguin-Hernandez was convicted in Texas federal court in 2016 of possessing marijuana with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to two years in prison followed by two years of supervised release.

While on supervised release, he was again arrested on marijuana charges. He got a five-year sentence on the new charge, plus another year to run consecutively for violating supervised release on the first charge.

The Fifth Circuit rejected Holguin-Hernandez’s argument that the consecutive year term was substantively unreasonable. He failed to raise his challenge in the district court, so his claim only warranted plain-error review, it said in the ruling that the Supreme Court vacated and sent back to the appeals court.

“The defendant here properly preserved the claim that his 12-month sentence was unreasonably long by advocating for a shorter sentence and thereby arguing, in effect, that this shorter sentence would have proved ‘sufficient,’ while a sentence of 12 months or longer would be ‘greater than necessary’ to ‘comply with’ the statutory purposes of punishment,” Breyer said, quoting federal sentencing requirements.

The case is Holguin-Hernandez v. United States, U.S., No. 18-7739, vacated and remanded 2/26/20.

(Adds more detail from opinions, comments from Turner, Sethi. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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