Puckett v. United States

PETITIONER:James Benjamin Puckett
RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION: Guaranty Bank

DOCKET NO.: 07-9712
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Oct 10, 2008
ARGUED: Jan 14, 2009
DECIDED: Mar 25, 2009

Lars R. Isaacson – appointed by the Court, argued the cause for the petitioner
Lisa H. Schertler – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States

Facts of the case

In September 2003, James Benjamin Puckett agreed to a plea bargain with the United States on counts of bank robbery and use of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence. In exchange for his guilty plea, the government agreed to recommend a reduced sentence. However at sentencing, the government reneged arguing that because Mr. Puckett admittedly aided a fellow inmate in another crime while awaiting sentencing, he was no longer eligible for the reduction. The district court agreed. On appeal, Mr. Puckett maintained that the government’s breach of agreement disqualified his guilty plea.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that Mr. Puckett’s guilty plea was not disqualified. It recognized that the government breached its plea agreement at sentencing. However, it reasoned that Mr. Puckett failed to prove his substantial rights were affected when the district court was unlikely to have imposed a different sentence, even if the government had recommended a reduction.


Does Rule 52(b) in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the “plain error standard”, govern whether a defendant can claim the government breached a plea agreement at the appellate level, when he failed to do so at the trial level?

Media for Puckett v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 14, 2009 in Puckett v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 25, 2009 in Puckett v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in case 07-9712, Puckett versus United States.

Antonin Scalia:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

James Puckett was indicted on one count of armed bank robbery and one count of using a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.

Instead of going to trial, he negotiated a plea bargain with the Government.

In exchange for his guilty plea on each count, the Government agreed that Puckett was entitled to a three-level reduction in offense level under the Sentencing Guidelines in recognition of his acceptance of responsibility for the crime spent.

That’s a basis for reducing the offense level.

And he also — and the Government also agreed to ask the judge to sentence Puckett at the low end of the applicable Guidelines range.

However, before Puckett was sentenced and while he was on release, he assisted another man in a scheme to defraud the United States Postal Service.

As a result, the Government retreated from its earlier position, which had been expressed in a motion before the District Court that Puckett was entitled to the three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility.

Instead, the Government argued that no reduction was in order.

The District Judge observing that it was “so rare as to be unknown” to give the reduction to a defendant who had committed crimes subsequent to those for which he was being sentenced declined to award the reduction.

On appeal, Puckett argued for the first time that the Government had broken the plea — the plea agreement.

The Government acknowledged that he had done so but maintained that Puckett was not entitled to a remedy for the breach because he had forfeited the claim by failing to raise it before the District Court.

Indeed, Puckett’s counsel had neither objected during sentencing that the Government was in violation of its plea bargain commitments nor had moved to withdraw Puckett’s guilty plea.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Government that the claim had been forfeited and denied relief because Puckett could not demonstrate especially in light of the District Judge’s comments that the breach had affected his ultimate sentence.

We granted certiorari.

If a litigant believes that error has occurred in a federal criminal proceeding, he must object in order to preserve the issue.

Unpreserved claims cannot be pressed on appeal except to the extent allowed by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b).

That rule allows review if an appellant shows error that was clear or obvious and caused him prejudice.

The Court has discretion to correct such an error if it seriously affected the fairness, integrity or reputation of the judicial proceeding.

This tough standard serves important interest in judicial efficiency by inducing timely objections which in turn give district courts the opportunity to adjudicate and sometimes to eliminate the — the claims of error.

That has the effect of eliminating some unnecessary appeals, facilitating review in those claims that do proceed to appeal and preventing litigants from playing dog in the manger, keeping silent until they see that the case goes against them and then raising the objection.

There is no reason to excuse defendants whose plea agreements were broken by the Government from the requirement of satisfying this plain-error test.

Contrary, Puckett argues that the breach of a plea agreement made his guilty plea unknowing or involuntary.

We think not, anymore than breach of any other contract renders the contract automatically void.

When the Government reneges on a plea deal, the defendant is entitled to seek a remedy perhaps even withdrawal of his guilty plea, but the plea is not retroactively invalidated, nor do our prior cases resolve the matter in Puckett’s favor, although we have said that preserved plea — a plea breach claims cannot be ignored as harmless.

We have never considered before whether unpreserved plea breach claims must be corrected notwithstanding the defendant’s forfeiture.

Puckett is also wrong to suggest that plain-error review would serve no purpose here and that applying it would be superfluous.

The salutary goal served by timely objections applies here as elsewhere and each of the prongs of plain-error review has floors in this context.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Antonin Scalia:

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens has joined.