Justices Chuck Immigration Sentence Over Messy Math

WASHINGTON (CN) – Finding that a small miscalculation still qualifies as a grave error when it comes to criminal sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court handed a 7-2 reversal Monday to an immigrant who re-entered the United States illegally.

Writing for the majority this morning, Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned that even small errors are capable of “seriously affect[ing] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.”

The error here arose after a probation officer double-counted a 2009 conviction for misdemeanor assault when calculating sentencing guidelines for Florencio Rosales-Mireles.

Instead of establishing that Rosales-Mireles had a criminal-history score of 11, the double-count put his score at 13, which translated to a sentencing guidelines recommendation of between 77 and 96 months.

This was not far off from the range of 70 to 87 months that a proper calculation would have given, but Rosales-Mireles claimed that any error here was enough to demand resentencing.

Rejecting this argument, the Fifth Circuit nevertheless found last year that the 78-month sentence Rosales-Mireles received in Texas for illegal re-entry should stand.

Sotomayor shot back Monday, however, that the Fifth Circuit applied too demanding a standard and was “out of step with the practice of other circuits.”

Not every error will harshly damage the judiciary’s reputation, Sotomayor allowed, but she said the mistake in Rosales-Mireles’ case is “precisely the type” the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure suggest reversing.

“The risk of unnecessary deprivation of liberty particularly undermines the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings in the context of a plain guidelines error because of the role the district court plays in calculating the range and the relative ease of correcting the error,” Sotomayor wrote.

Responding to the dissent, Sotomayor also wrote there is limited cost to remanding a case to a trial court for resentencing.

Sotomayor was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Neil Gorsuch.

Joined in his dissent by Justice Samuel Alito meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas accused the majority of having swept too broadly by holding errors in guidelines calculations will “ordinarily” demand reversal. Thomas wrote that Sotomayor’s opinion essentially renders irrelevant the requirement that a defendant raise timely objections to errors.

He further argued Sotomayor’s holding might create an incentive for defendants to sit on their objections to mistakes in their guidelines, as it would give them a shot at a new sentence without giving the court the chance to consider the error in the original.

“In other words, a defendant who does not alert the district court to a plain miscalculation of his guidelines range – and is not happy with the sentence he receives – can raise the guidelines error for the first time on appeal and ordinarily get another shot at a more favorable sentence,” Thomas wrote. “The court’s decision goes far beyond what was necessary to answer the question presented.”

Citing Rosales-Mireles’ multiple assault convictions and noting his sentence fell within the correct guidelines range, Thomas wrote the court’s decision to disturb the sentence “upsets” the goals of the rules for when courts can reverse erroneous sentences.

Kristin Davidson, the assistant federal public defender who argued the case for Rosales-Mireles, praised the decision on Monday, saying she hopes it will have far-reaching effects.

“As Mr. Rosales-Mireles’ attorneys, we are pleased with the court’s decision and trust that it will contribute to consistent sentencing practices that promote fairness and reduce the risk of unnecessary deprivations of liberty,” Davidson said.

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the opinion.

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