Molina-Martinez v. United States - Oral Argument - January 12, 2016

Molina-Martinez v. United States

Media for Molina-Martinez v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 20, 2016 in Molina-Martinez v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 2016 in Molina-Martinez v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Case 14-8913, Molina-Martinez v. United States. Mr. Crooks.

Timothy Crooks:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: As this Court recognized in Peugh v. United States, the United States Sentencing Guidelines remain uniquely central to Federal sentencing even where the district court ultimately chooses to sentence outside the Guidelines. Because of the strong anchoring effect of the Guidelines, as also recognized in Peugh, the natural effect of an erroneously high Guideline range is to skew a defendant's sentence higher than it would have been under the correct range.

Yet when the district court has elected to sentence within what it believes to be the correct range, it is typically very difficult to determine what the district court would have done had it been presented with the correct lower range.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Mr. Crooks, you didn't cite 18 U.S.C. 3742(f), and I wondered why, because it reads: "If the court of appeals determines that the sentence was imposed as a result of an incorrect application of the Sentencing Guidelines, the court shall remand the case for further sentencing proceedings with such instructions as the court considers appropriate." So this seems to say that, if the incorrect -- there was an incorrect application of the Guidelines, then a remand is mandatory.

Timothy Crooks:

It -- it does appear to say that, Justice Ginsburg; however, I believe in this Court's decision in Williams v. United States, the Court said that Guideline errors are nonetheless subject to the normal doctrines of harmless and plain-error review and not subject to automatic reversal.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

And -- and so it's not clear that there was a Guidelines violation here.

The Guidelines were incorrectly calculated, but it's not clear that at the end of the day there was a violation. I mean, is that really your response to Justice Ginsburg, or am I oversimplifying?

Timothy Crooks:

There was a misapplication of the Guidelines, but harmless and plain-error doctrines apply to determine the remedy for that violation or misapplication.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, there was a miscalculation.

I'm not sure if there was a misapplication.

That's -- I -- I suppose that's the issue in the case.

Or -- or is this --

Timothy Crooks:

We believe --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

-- is this quibble wrong?

Timothy Crooks:

We believe that there was a misapplication because the Guidelines were incorrectly calculated with respect to the defendant's criminal history.

And that is the type of thing that the statute Justice Ginsburg was referring to says you should remand for, subject, of course, as this Court says in Williams, to the normal doctrines of harmless and plain error. And we're here today, of course, on a plain-error case because we have a Guideline misapplication that unfortunately was not discovered by anyone below.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Well, you say that when there is a -- excuse me -- a miscalculation of the Guidelines range, that should give rise to a rebuttable presumption that the miscalculation affected the sentence that the judge imposed.

Timothy Crooks:

That's correct, Justice Alito.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

And what does that mean? Does that mean that the -- the burden of persuasion shifts to the prosecution?

Timothy Crooks:

We believe that the Court's opinion in Olano actually supports a conceptualization that it simply gives the defendant an alternative way to satisfy his burden of persuasion, which is done in a generalized rather than a case-specific way.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Well, suppose there's no evidence, as -- as will -- may very often be the case. Suppose the judge says -- imposes a sentence within what the judge believes to be the Guideline range but says nothing whatsoever beyond that, and it turns out that that is not the correct Guidelines range, so that there's no evidence one way or the other about what the judge would have done had the judge understood the correct Guidelines range. What outcome in that situation?

Timothy Crooks:

In that situation, typically the result would be that the third prong of plain-error review would be satisfied and the defendant would have shown an effect on his substantial right.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

So that means that the burden of persuasion in that situation is on the prosecution.

Timothy Crooks:

Again, we may be quibbling about terms, but we believe that the defendant satisfies his burden of persuasion with generalized evidence tending to show the -- that the natural effect of a Guideline error is to affect the sentence.

Sonia Sotomayor:

I -- I don't think I understand the difference between general and specific. Evidence is evidence.

And you draw inferences from all sorts of circumstances.

So I don't know why you call this general.

It's evidence.

Okay? Let's assume the Guideline was 70 to 100. The erroneous Guideline was 80 to 100, and the right Guideline was 70 to 100. Would we -- you draw a general inference that the corrected Guideline would have made any difference on that sentence?

Timothy Crooks:

We would, Your Honor.