High Court Loosens Rules for Appealing Sentences

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that a man’s arguments for a lighter sentence are enough for him to challenge as unreasonable another year being added to a sentence he received on drug trafficking charges.

Justice Stephen Breyer penned the eight-page opinion, in which the court sided with Mexican citizen Gonzalo Holguin-Hernandez.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Holguin-Hernandez pleaded guilty to possessing marijuana with intent to distribute in 2016. He served two years in prison, followed by two years of probation during which he was arrested on the same charge and given a five-year prison sentence with another five years of supervised release.

The district court then, at the request of the government, tacked on an additional consecutive year to Holguin-Hernandez’s prison sentence for violating the terms of his parole, which he argued was an “unreasonably long” punishment.

The Supreme Court agreed in Wednesday’s unanimous decision, vacating the Fifth Circuit’s decision to affirm the sentence and remanding the case.

“We hold only that the defendant here properly preserved the claim that his 12-month sentence was unreasonably long by advocating for a shorter sentence and thereby arguing, in effect, that this shorter sentence would have proved ‘sufficient,’ while a sentence of 12 months or longer would be ‘greater than necessary’ to ‘comply with’ the statutory purposes of punishment,” Breyer wrote, citing federal law.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate concurring opinion, which Justice Neil Gorsuch joined.

“I agree with the court that a defendant who requests a specific sentence during a sentencing hearing need not object to the sentence after its pronouncement in order to preserve a challenge to its substantive reasonableness (i.e., length) on appeal,” Alito said. “I write to emphasize what we are not deciding.”

Alito noted that the justices are not ruling on whether the trial court used improper procedures in arriving at its chosen sentence or suggesting that a generalized argument in favor of a lesser sentence is always enough to preserve an appeal. He added that the high court also did not necessarily endorse Holguin-Hernandez’s argument “that he did not pose a danger to the public and that a 12-month sentence would not serve deterrence purposes.”

“In determining whether ar­guments have been preserved, courts should make a case-specific assessment of how the error was ‘brought to the court’s attention,’” Alito wrote. “On remand, the Fifth Circuit can decide whether petitioner preserved these spe­cific arguments and whether the sentence was substan­tively unreasonable.”

Holguin-Hernandez’s Texas-based attorney Philip J. Lynch said in an email Wednesday that he and his client are happy that the Supreme Court has resolved a circuit split and glad that their reading of precedent and of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 51 was vindicated.

“We are hopeful that, on remand, the Fifth Circuit will rule in Mr. Holguin’s favor on the reasonableness question,” Lynch said.

The solicitor general’s office did not respond to an email requesting comment from counsel of record, Noel J. Francisco.

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