(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday held an Alabama man was wrongly sentenced to 20 years in prison under a defunct law and that the Fifth Circuit should decide on a more appropriate punishment.
Marcus Deshaw Hicks pleaded guilty to selling 50 grams of crack cocaine and because of a prior conviction, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Hicks was sentenced after Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act reducing crack sentences, but before the Supreme Court held in Dorsey v. United States that the law applies to people who committed an offense but not yet been sentenced at the time of the statute’s enactment.
Hicks’ attorney never raised the issue and failed to advise Him that he had a right to seek certiorari. Hicks hired a new lawyers and argued the his sentence should be vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of Dorsey.
The acting U.S. solicitor general agreed with Hicks that a GVR is warranted, but argued that the court of appeals should apply plain-error analysis on remand.
The plain-error rule is the principle that an appeals court can reverse a judgment and order a new trial because of a serious mistake in the proceedings, even though no objection was made at the time the mistake occurred.
Hicks argued that while Fifth Circuit should vacate his sentence, the case should go back to the district court.
The justices were asked to determine the scope of any remand, and they ultimately agreed with the solicitor general.
In a concurring opinion, new Justice Neil Gorsuch said everyone agrees Hicks was wrongly sentenced, but he feels the remand order doesn’t go far enough.
“To undo and revise a sentence under the plain error standard, a court must not only (1) discern an error, that error must (2) be plain, (3) affect the defendant’s substantial rights, and (4) implicate the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings,” Gorsuch wrote.
“While the government concedes the first two legal elements of the plain error test, it asks us to remand the case to the court of appeals for it to resolve the latter two questions in the first instance. I cannot think of a good reason to say no,” he said. “Indeed, the lone peril in the present case seems to me the possibility that we might permit the government to deny someone his liberty longer than the law permits only because we refuse to correct an obvious judicial error.”
Chief Justice John Roberts cited the result in Hicks in an unrelated dissent Monday after the Supreme Court summarily vacated a ruling by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals against Toforest Johnson.
“The question presented concerns state collateral review—purely a creature of state law that need not be provided at all,” Roberts wrote, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch. “Whatever one’s view on the propriety of our practice of vacating judgments based on positions of the parties, see Hicks v. United States, 582 U. S. ___ (2017), the court’s decision to vacate this state court judgment is truly extraordinary. I respectfully dissent.”