Molina-Martinez v. United States

PETITIONER:Saul Molina-Martinez
RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Brownsville Division

DOCKET NO.: 14-8913
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2015
ARGUED: Jan 12, 2016
DECIDED: Apr 20, 2016

Timothy Crooks – for the petitioner
Scott A.C. Meisler – for the respondent

Facts of the case

Saul Molina-Martinez pleaded guilty to being in the United States illegally following deportation proceedings that stemmed from his felony convictions. The district court accordingly sentenced Molina-Martinez to 77 months in prison, pursuant to the sentencing range established in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for his criminal history category. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, prior sentences are counted as a single sentence if they were imposed on the same day unless the offenses in question were separated by an intervening arrest. Molina-Martinez’s prior offenses were not separated by an intervening arrest, so when his probation officer calculated his criminal history points and concluded that they placed him in category VI, he erred; Molina-Martinez should properly have been placed in category V, which carries a lower sentencing range of 70-87 months. Molina-Martinez appealed his sentence on the grounds that the district court erred in sentencing him based on the incorrect criminal history category. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that, despite the error in calculation, Molina-Martinez failed to show that the error affected his substantial rights and therefore affirmed his conviction and sentence.


When an error in the application of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines results in the application of the wrong Guideline range to the defendant, should the appellate court presume that the error affected the defendant’s substantial rights?

Media for Molina-Martinez v. United States

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

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

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has the opinion of the Court this morning in case 14-8913, Molina-Martinez versus United States.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case involved the federal sentencing guidelines.

In sentencing the petitioner, Saul Molina-Martinez, the district court ruled or relied on an incorrect guidelines range of 77 low to 96 high, months, 77 to 96.

The district court sentenced petitioner to the bottom of that incorrect range, 77 months.

Had the court used the correct guidelines range, 70 to 87 months the bottom of the range would have been 70 rather than 77.

The error went unnoticed by the sentencing court and the parties.

Calculation of guidelines is complex, it begins with the pre-trail of sentencing officers and the courts and the attorneys for the defendants have this complex system to deal with.

So the error was unnoticed and was raised for first time on appeal.

As a result, appellate review of the error is governed by the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure §52(B), which is the so-called Plain Error Rule.

Under 52(B) an error that’s raised for the first time on appeal can be corrected only if, among other requirements, there is a reasonable probability that but the error the outcome of the proceeding would have been different.

So the petitioner is not entitled to relief unless there was a reasonable probability that the district court’s use of an erroneous higher guidelines range had an effect on its sentence.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to correct the error.

In its view, petitioner could not show a reasonable probability of a different outcome.

The Court of Appeals ruled that because petitioner’s actual sentence fell within the correct guidelines range as well as the incorrect one, he needed to identify additional evidence in the record showing that the incorrect guidelines range had an effect on the district court selection of his sentence and according to the Court of Appeals he did not make that additional showing.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stands generally apart from other Court of Appeals with respect to its consideration of unpreserved guideline errors and this Court now holds that the rule following the Fifth Circuit is incorrect.

Nothing in the text of Rule 52(B) or its rationale or in this Court’s precedents supports a requirement that a defendant seeking appellate review of an unpreserved guidelines error must make some further showing of prejudice.

Today’s decision holds it suffices have to show that the erroneous and higher guidelines range that’s the wrong framework for the sentencing proceedings.

When a defendant was sentenced under an incorrect guidelines range, the error itself can and most often will be sufficient to show a reasonable probability of a different outcome absent the error.

Today’s holding follows from the essential framework the guidelines established for sentencing proceedings.

District courts must begin their analysis with the guidelines and remain cognizant of the guidelines throughout the sentencing process.

Sentencing commission statistics demonstrate the real and pervasive effect the guidelines have on sentencing.

This case illustrates the unworkable nature of the Court of Appeals’ additional evidence rule.

The record shows that the district court gave little explanation for the sentence of selected and there is at least a reasonable probability if the district court would have imposed a different sentence had it known that 70 months was in fact the lowest sentence the sentencing commission deemed appropriate.

Rejection of the Fifth Circuit’s rule means only that a defendant can rely on the application of an incorrect guidelines range to show an effect on his substantial rights not that the government will have to prove that every guidelines error was harmless.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Alito has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment in which Justice Thomas joins.