Holguin-Hernandez v. U.S.: Argument to district court for a lesser sentence preserves claim on appeal that longer sentence was unreasonable
A defendant properly preserves for appeal a claim that his sentence is unreasonable where he argued for a lesser sentence in the district court, the U.S. Supreme Court held February 26 in Holguin-Hernandez v. United States.
Rule 51(b) of the federal rules of criminal procedure provides that a party preserves claims of error by informing the court of the action the party wishes the court to take, or making an objection to the court’s action and the grounds for that objection.
Gonzalo Holguin-Hernandez’s attorney argued to the district court that 18 U.S.C. §3353 did not support imposing any prison time for violation of his supervised release, or at the very least, supported a sentence of less than 12 months. The judge imposed a 12-month sentence. Holguin-Hernandez’s attorney did not object.
On appeal, Holguin-Hernandez argued that the 12-month sentence was unreasonably long.
The Fifth Circuit held this claim was not preserved because Holguin-Hernandez had not objected in the district court to the reasonableness of the sentence. The Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve a conflict among the circuits.
A unanimous Court held that Holguin-Hernandez’s claim was preserved.
“By informing the court of the action he wishes the court to take … a party ordinarily brings to the court’s attention his objection to a contrary decision,” the Court said. “And that is certainly true in cases such as this one, where a criminal defendant advocates for a sentence shorter than the one ultimately imposed.”
Trial judges would understand that a defendant in that circumstance is making an argument under §3353 that a shorter sentence would be “sufficient” and a longer sentence “greater than necessary.”
“Nothing more is needed to preserve a claim that a longer sentence is unreasonable,” the Court said.
The drafters of Rule 51(b) did not require an objecting party to use any particular language, the Court said. “The question is simply whether the claimed error was brought to the court’s attention.”
Justices Alito and Gorsuch concurred, but emphasized what the Court was not deciding.
The Court was not deciding what is sufficient to preserve a claim that a trial court used improper procedures in arriving at a sentence, they said. The Court has previously held that “failing to object to procedural error (e.g., a district court’s miscalculation of the Guidelines range) will subject a procedural challenge to [unpreserved] plain-error review.”
They said the Court was also not deciding what is sufficient to preserve any “particular” substantive-reasonableness argument. “We do not suggest that a generalized argument in favor of less imprisonment will insulate all arguments regarding the length of sentence from plain-error review.”