Supreme Court Updates

Supreme Court Rulings

Supreme Court says plain error rule applies to government’s breach of plea agreement. Defendant pleaded guilty to bank robbery pursuant to a plea agreement in which the government agreed that defendant has demonstrated acceptance of responsibility and thereby qualified for a three-level reduction in offense level. Prior to defendant’s sentencing, he Appealparticipated in a scheme to defraud the Postal Service. At sentencing, the government opposed any reduction in defendant’s offense level for acceptance of responsibility. Defendant did not object to the prosecutor’s failure to abide by the plea agreement. The district court declined to grant the reduction, noting that it was “unknown” for a defendant who committed a crime after pleading guilty to receive an acceptance of responsibility deduction. On appeal, defendant argued that the government violated the plea agreement by failing to support an acceptance of responsibility reduction. In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court held that the plain error standard applies to a defendant’s forfeited claim that the government failed to abide by a plea agreement. In applying the plain-error standard, the Court explained that the government’s breach of a plea agreement is not structural error and is not always prejudicial. Justices Souter and Stevens dissented. Puckett v. U.S., 556 U.S._, 129 S.Ct. 1423 (March 25, 2009).

Arizona v. Gant
129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009)

Respondent Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in a patrol car before officers searched his car and found cocaine in a jacket pocket. The Arizona trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence and he was convicted of drug offenses. Reversing, the Supreme Court distinguished New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981)- which held that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any containers therein as a contemporaneous incident of a recent occupant’s lawful arrest – on the ground that it concerned the scope of a search incident to arrest but did not answer the question whether officers may conduct such a search once the scene has been secured. Because Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), requires that a search incident to arrest be justified by either the interest in officer safety or the interest in preserving evidence and the circumstances of Gant’s arrest implicated neither of those interests, the Supreme Court found the search unreasonable.

Held: Police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest

only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.

(a) Warrantless searches “are per se unreasonable,” subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967). The exception for a search incident to a lawful arrest applies only to “the area from within which [an arrestee] might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” Chimel, 395 U.S., at 763. This Court applied that exception to the automobile context in Belton, the holding of which rested in large part on the assumption that articles inside a vehicle’s passenger compartment are “generally . . . within ‘the area into which an arrestee might reach.'” 453 U.S., at 460.

Montejo v. Louisiana129 S. Ct. 2079 (2009)

Overruling a case from 1986 and finding that it does not violate the 6th Amendment for police to try to interrogate a suspect who at an earlier hearing had not asked for a lawyer, but was appointed one. The court precedent, Michigan v. Jackson, 475 U.S. 625 (1986), had generally forbade police from continuing to seek a suspect’s waiver of his right to counsel for purposes of interrogation once he had asserted his right at an arraignment or earlier phase. The 5th Amendment protection under Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) still holds that in an interrogation, where a defendant invokes his right to an attorney, police must end the interrogation and any statements made subsequently are excluded.

District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial Circuit v. Osborne129 S. Ct. 2308 (2009)

Declaring that no federal constitutional right exists for prisoners to obtain access to biological evidence held by a state for DNA testing to try to prove their innocence.

Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts129 S. Ct. 2527 (2009)

Requiring that when drug, blood or other forensic reports are introduced by prosecutors at trial, the analyst who prepared the report must be available for cross-examination to fulfill the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right “to be confronted by the witnesses against him.”

Flores-Figueroa v. United States
129 S. Ct. 1886 (2009)

Requiring federal prosecutors who charge a defendant with aggravated identity theft to prove that the defendant knew his papers belonged to a real, rather than fictitious, person.


  • United States v. Brack, 188 F.3d 748 (7th Cir. 1999) (prosecutor may not refuse a good faith offer by a client to be debriefed for safety valve purposes).
  • United States v. Real-Hernandez, 90 F.3d 356, 361 (9th Cir. 1996) (truthful disclosure to another assistant U.S. attorney, not assigned to Hernandez’s case, satisfied disclosure requirements).
  • United States v. Miranda-Santiago, 96 F.3d 517 (1st Cir. 1996) (trial court erred in refusing safety valve where there was no evidence on the record of falsehoods).
  • Mejia-Pimental, 477 F.3d at 1105; United States v. Jeffers, 329 F.3d 94 (2nd Cir. 2003) (district court cannot deny safety valve to defendant who meets safety valve criteria, even though defendant perjured self at trial). United States v. Brownlee, 204 F.3d 1302 (11th Cir. 2000); United States v. Tournier, 171 F.3d 645, 646-48 (8th Cir. 1999); United States v. Bama-Bastidas, 142 F.3d 1233 (10th Cir. 1998); compare United States v. Fletcher, 74 F.3d 49 (4th Cir. 1996) (circuit court affirmed the district court’s denial of safety valve reduction where a defendant perjured himself at trial but “came clean” at sentencing.

On December 11, 2007, the Commission agreed to allow prisoners serving crack cocaine sentences to seek sentence reductions that went into effect on November 1, 2007. Retroactivity will affect 19,500 federal prisoners, almost 2,520 of whom could be eligible for early release in the first year. Federal courts will administer the application of the retroactive guideline, which is not automatic. Courts may refuse to grant sentence reductions to individuals if they believe they could pose a public safety risk.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has repeatedly advised Congress since 1995 that there is no rational, scientific basis for the 100-to-1 ration between crack and powder cocaine sentences. The Commission has also identified the resulting disparity as the “single most important” factor in longer sentences for blacks compared to other racial groups.

On December 10, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that judges can consider the unfairness of the 100-to-1 ration between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences and may impose a sentence below the crack guideline in cases where the guideline sentence is too severe.

However, neither the new guideline nor its retroactivity changes the statutory mandatory minimums that retain the 100-to-1 quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine. To insure equal justice for all defendants, Congress must act to address the mandatory minimums that created the cocaine sentencing disparity in 1986.

18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(B)(2) Motions are the proper vehicles for relief on this issue. If your case is complicated, you may need more than a simple request for relief:

(B) The court may modify an imposed term of imprisonment to the extent otherwise expressly permitted by statute or by Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; and
(2) In the case of a defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 994(o), upon motion of the defendant or the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, or on its own motion, the court may reduce the term of imprisonment, after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable, if such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.

No. 06-6330
Decided December 10, 2007

Crack Guideline Is Advisory!

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the federal guidelines on sentencing for cocaine violations are advisory only, rejecting a lower court ruling that they are effectively mandatory. Judges must consider the Guideline range for a cocaine violation, the Court said, but may conclude that they are too harsh when considering the disparity between punishment for crack cocaine and cocaine in powder form. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the decision in Kimbrough v. U.S. (06-6330). The ruling validates the view of the U.S. Sentencing Commission that the 100-to-1 crack v. cocaine disparity may exaggerate the seriousness of the crack crime.

Syllabus Excerpt:

Under the statute criminalizing the manufacture and distribution of cocaine, 21 U.S.C. §841, and the relevant Federal Sentencing Guidelines, a drug trafficker dealing in crack cocaine is subject to the same sentence as one dealing in 100 times more powder cocaine. Petitioner Kimbrough pleaded guilty to four offenses: conspiracy to distribute crack and powder; possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack; possession with intent to distribute powder; and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense. Under the relevant statutes, Kimbrough’s plea subjected him to a minimum prison term of 15 years and a maximum of life. The applicable advisory Guidelines range was 228 to 270 months, or 19 to 22.5 years. The District Court found however, that a sentence in this range would have been greater than necessary to accomplish the purposes of sentencing set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). In making that determination, the court relied in part on its view that Kimbrough’s case exemplified the “disproportionate and unjust effect that crack cocaine guidelines have in sentencing.” The court noted that if Kimbrough had possessed only powder cocaine, his Guidelines range would have been far lower: 97 to 106 months. Concluding that the statutory minimum sentence was long enough to accomplish §3553(a)’s objections, the court sentenced Kimbrough to 15 years, or 180 months in prison. The Fourth Circuit vacated the sentence, finding that a sentence outside the Guidelines range is per se reasonable when it is based on a disagreement with the sentencing disparity for crack and powder offenses.


1. Under United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, the cocaine Guidelines, like all other Guidelines, are advisory only, and the Fourth Circuit erred in holding the crack/powder disparity effectively mandatory. A district judge must include the Guidelines range in the array of factors warranting consideration, but the judge may determine that in the particular case, a within-Guidelines sentence is “greater than necessary” to serve the objectives of sentence §3553(a). In making that determination, the judge may consider the disparity between the Guidelines’ treatment of crack and powder offenses. Pp. 5-21.

2. The 180-month sentence imposed on Kimbrough should survive appellate inspection. The District Court began by properly calculating and considering the advisory Guidelines range. It then addressed the relevant §3553(a) factors, including the Sentencing Commission’s reports criticizing the 100-to-1 ratio. Finally, the court did not purport to establish a ratio of its own, but appropriately framed its final determination in line with §3553(a)(2). The court thus rested its sentence on the appropriate considerations and “committed no procedural error,” Gall, ante, at 17. In determining that 15 years was the appropriate prison term, the District Court properly honed in on the particular circumstances of Kimbrough’s case and accorded weight to the Sentencing Commission’s consistent and emphatic position that the crack/powder disparity is at odds with §3553(a). Giving due respect to the District Court’s reasoned appraisal, a reviewing court could not rationally conclude that the 4.5-year sentence reduction Kimbrough received qualified as an abuse of discretion. Pp. 21-23.

No. 06-7949
Decided December 10, 2007

Extraordinary Circumstances are not the standard for departures: Deferential Standard of Review applies to appeals of below Guideline Sentences

Ruling in a second Guidelines case, Gall v. U.S. (06-7949), the Court – also by a 7-2 vote – cleared the way for judges to impose sentences below the specified range and still have such punishment regarded as “reasonable.” The Justices, in an opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, told federal appeals courts to use a “deferential abuse-of-discretion standard” even when a trial sets a punishment below the range. The Gall decision overturned a ruling by the Eighth Circuit Court that a below-Guidelines sentence would be reasonable only if justified by “extraordinary circumstances.” It was not for the Circuit Court to decide de novo the issue of whether a variation from a Guideline range was justified, it said.

Syllabus Excerpt:

Petitioner Gall joined an ongoing enterprise distributing the controlled substance “ecstasy” while in college, but withdrew from the conspiracy after seven months. He has sold no illegal drugs since, has used no illegal drugs and worked steadily since graduation. Three and a half years after withdrawing from the conspiracy, Gall pleaded guilty to his participation. A pre-sentence report recommended a sentence of 30 to 37 months in prison, but the District Court sentenced Gall to 36 months’ probation, finding that probation reflected the seriousness of his offense and that imprisonment was unnecessary because his voluntary withdrawal from the conspiracy and post-offense conduct showed that he would not return to criminal behavior and was not a danger to society. The Eighth Circuit reversed on the ground that a sentence outside the Federal Sentencing Guidelines range must be – and was not in this case – supported by extraordinary circumstances.


1. While the extent of the difference between a particular sentence and the recommended Guidelines range is relevant, courts of appeals must review all sentences – whether inside, just outside, or significantly outside the Guidelines range – under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard. Pp. 7-14.

2. On abuse-of-discretion review, the Eighth Circuit failed to give due deference to the District Court’s reasoned and reasonable sentencing decision. Since the District Court committed no procedural error, the only question for the Circuit was whether the sentence was reasonable, i.e., whether the District Judge abused his discretion in determining that the §3553(a) factors supported the sentence and justified a substantial deviation from the Guidelines range. The Circuit gave virtually no deference to the District Court’s decision that the variance was justified. The Circuit clearly disagreed with the District Court’s decision, but it was not for the Circuit to decide de novo whether the justification for a variance is sufficient or the sentence reasonable. Pp. 14-21.

No. 06-571
Decided December 10, 2007

924(c) does not apply to a person who receives a gun in trade for drugs.

In the last of the three rulings on Monday, the Court decided unanimously that one does not “use” a gun for purposes of imposing a mandatory five-year sentence, if the person receives the gun in a trade for drugs. Justice David H. Souter wrote the opinion in Watson v. United States.