United States v. Dominguez Benitez

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Carlos Dominguez Benitez
LOCATION:Pennsylvania General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 03-167
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 542 US 74 (2004)
GRANTED: Dec 08, 2003
ARGUED: Apr 21, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 14, 2004

Dan Himmelfarb – argued the cause for Petitioner
Myra D Mossman – argued the cause for Respondent
Stevan A. Buys – for Arnaldo Rafael Vicente Infante-Cabrera as amicus curiae urging affirmance

Facts of the case

Carlos Dominguez Benitez confessed to selling drugs to an informant. He made a plea agreement with the government in which he would plead guilty to conspiracy to sell drugs, which normally carried a 10-year minimum sentence. However, the government agreed to ask the judge to reduce the sentence below that minimum. The plea agreement also said that, if the judge did not agree to the government’s request to lower the sentence, Dominguez could not withdraw his guilty plea. During discussions of the plea, the judge failed to mention the fact that it prohibited him from withdrawing his plea (the written statement, which did contain the fact, was read to him at another time). When the judge ruled that he could not lower the sentence, Dominguez appealed. He argued that the judge’s failure to tell him that he would be unable to withdraw his appeal was a “plain error” under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52 and therefore required reversal. The prosecutors countered that, in order to show that the judge had made a “plain error” Dominguez would need to show not just that he had made a mistake but also that it was reasonably likely that, without the error, Dominguez would not have pled guilty. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, siding with Dominguez to reverse the decision.


In order to show that a judge’s mistake is a reversible “plain error” under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52, must a defendant show that it is reasonably likely he would not have pled guilty without the mistake?

Media for United States v. Dominguez Benitez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 21, 2004 in United States v. Dominguez Benitez

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 14, 2004 in United States v. Dominguez Benitez

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 03-167, United States against Benitez will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari for the Ninth Circuit.

In May of 1999 the respondent, Carlos Dominguez Benitez, agreed to sell methamphetamine to a federal informant.

Dominguez was arrested, confessed, and faced federal drug charges that carried a statutory and mandatory minimum sentence of ten years.

The prosecutor agreed to recommend that Dominguez escaped the mandatory minimum sentence by qualifying for a so-called safety valve that another statutory provision makes available.

Dominguez pleaded guilty under that agreement.

The written plea agreement contained the warning that Dominguez could not withdraw his plea if the Court departed from the party’s recommendation.

The District Court should have given Dominguez the same warning orally again in the plea colloquy for Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure require the court to give that warning, but the District Court mistakenly failed to give it.

The Court and counsel later learned that Dominguez had prior convictions that disqualified him for the safety valve.

The Court therefore departed from the recommendation of the plea agreement and imposed the mandatory 10-year minimum sentence.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed holding that although Dominguez had not timely objected to the District Court’s failure to warn that he could not withdraw his guilty plea, the failure to give the warning in violation of Rule 11 was plain error that effected Dominguez’s substantial rights.

The Court held that was enough that the error was not minor or technical and that Dominguez did not understand the rights at issue when he pleaded guilty.

We granted certiorari to consider the showing a defendant must make to obtain relief for unpreserved Rule 11 error.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk of the Court, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.

We recently held in United States v. Vonn that a defendant who does not object to a Rule 11 error at trial must satisfy the plain error standard of the United States v. Olano which requires, among other things, that an error affect a defendant’s substantial rights.

The phrase substantial rights, usually means that an error must have prejudicial effect on the outcome of a proceeding and we see no reason to depart from that general meaning in this case.

We apply a standard we have used in other cases where a defendant must establish prejudice or materiality.

Dominguez must show a reasonable probability, but for the error he would not have entered the guilty plea.

The standard satisfies the policy of the plain error rule to encourage timely objections and it also respects that particular importance of the finality of guilty pleas which are indispensable to the modern criminal justice system.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.