Henderson v. United States

PETITIONER: Armarcion D. Henderson
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana

DOCKET NO.: 11-9307
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 568 US (2013)
GRANTED: Jun 25, 2012
ARGUED: Nov 28, 2012
DECIDED: Feb 20, 2013

ADVOCATES:
Jeffrey B. Wall - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Patricia A. Gilley - for the petitioner (appointed by the Court)

Facts of the case

Armarcion D. Henderson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of federal law. The sentencing guideline range was 33-41 months, but the judge sentenced Henderson to 60 months to ensure that he had the opportunity to enroll in the Bureau of Prisons drug program. Henderson did not object to the sentence. Eight days after sentencing, Henderson filed a motion to correct the sentence. The district court denied the motion.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that Henderson did not preserve the error for correction under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, so the court reviewed the decision for plain error. Henderson did not show plain error because the error was not clear under current law at the time of trial. The court of appeals denied a petition for rehearing en banc.

Question

1. Did the Fifth Circuit err when it held that Henderson did not preserve the error?

2. Did the Fifth Circuit err in holding that Henderson did not show plain error in his sentence?

Media for Henderson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 28, 2012 in Henderson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 20, 2013 in Henderson v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has our opinion in case 11-9307, Henderson versus United States.

Stephen G. Breyer:

The federal appeals court normally will not consider a legal error that has made by a criminal trial court unless the defendant first brought the error to the trial court's attention.

But Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) creates an exception or a “plain error.”

It says a federal appeals court may -- may consider a plain error even though it was not brought to the trial court's attention.

Now, supposed that the time of trial, a ruling was legally questionable, but it wasn't plainly erroneous and supposed forwarded that the defendant's lawyer did not question that ruling, supposed that after the trial but before the appeal, the relevant law becomes clarified perhaps through a decision of this Court.

So that by the time of the appeal, it is clear that the ruling, as of the time of appeal, was plainly erroneous but the error was not plain at the time of trial.

Does the Federal Rule allow the Appeals Court to consider it?

That is the question before us.

Do the rules' words plain error, encompass errors that are not plain until the time of appeal by which time they are not plain?

Now, the rules' language does not tell us, but in an earlier case, Johnson v. United States, we held that the rule did encompass errors that were not plain until the time of appeal when the lawyer's objection before the trial court would have seen pointless because the law at that time seemed to be so much indeed clearly in the trial court's favor.

It would be anomalous, we think, to remit a Court of Appeals to consider what is now but was not -- it was now a plain-error they could consider it.

Everybody agrees.

When the trial court was plainly wrong, that's the ordinary case.

And when the trial court was plainly right, that's the Johnson case, but not consider it when the law was not clear at the time of trial.

That's the present case.

Pleading those differently would be anomalous.

And for this reason and for other reasons set out in our opinion, we find that the words plain-error in the rule include errors that are plain at the time of appeal even though they were not plain before.

Our holding does not mean that Courts of Appeals will automatically find in the appellant's favor because there are other hurdles the appellant must overcome, including a requirement that the error affects substantial rights and that the error seriously affect the fairness integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

In this case, however, the Court of Appeals held it couldn't proceed further.

It just could not consider an error then plain because it was not plain at the time of trial.

We reversed that determination and we remand the case for further proceedings.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which he is enjoined by Justice Thomas and Justice Alito.