556 U.S. 129 (2009), 07-9712, Puckett v. United States

Docket Nº:07-9712
Citation:556 U.S. 129, 129 S.Ct. 1423, 173 L.Ed.2d 266, 77 U.S.L.W. 4224
Party Name:James Benjamin PUCKETT, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
Case Date:March 25, 2009
Court:United States Supreme Court

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129 S.Ct. 1423, 173 L.Ed.2d 266, 77 U.S.L.W. 4224

James Benjamin PUCKETT, Petitioner,



No. 07-9712

United States Supreme Court

March 25, 2009

Argued January 14, 2009.


[129 S.Ct. 1424] [129 S.Ct. 1425] Syllabus[*]

In exchange for petitioner Puckett's guilty plea, the Government agreed to request (1) a three-level reduction in his offense level under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on the ground that he had accepted responsibility for his crimes; and (2) a sentence at the low end of the applicable Guidelines range. The District Court accepted the plea, but before Puckett was sentenced he assisted in another crime. As a result, the Government opposed any reduction in Puckett's offense level, and the District Court denied the three-level reduction. On appeal, Puckett raised for the first time the argument that by backing away from its reduction request, the Government had broken the plea agreement. The Fifth Circuit found that Puckett had forfeited that claim by failing to raise it below; applied Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 52(b)'s plain-error standard for unpreserved claims of error; and held that, although the error had occurred and was obvious, Puckett had not satisfied the third prong of plain-error analysis in that he failed to demonstrate that his ultimate sentence was affected, especially since the District Judge had found that acceptance-of-responsibility reductions for defendants who continued to engage in criminal activity were so rare as "to be unknown."


Rule 52(b)'s plain-error test applies to a forfeited claim, like Puckett's, that the Government failed to meet its obligations under a plea agreement, and applies in the usual fashion. Pp.1428–1433. (a) In federal criminal cases, Rule 51(b) instructs parties how to preserve claims of error: "by informing the court—when [a] ruling . . . is made or sought—of the action the party wishes the court to take, or the party's objection to the court's action and the grounds for that objection." A party's failure to preserve a claim ordinarily prevents him from raising it on appeal, but Rule 52(b) recognizes a limited exception for plain errors. "Plain-error review" involves four prongs: (1) there must be an error or defect that the appellant has not affirmatively waived, United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732-733, 113 S.Ct. 1770, 123 L.Ed.2d 508; (2) it must be clear or obvious, see id., at 734, 113 S.Ct. 1770; (3) it must have affected the appellant's substantial rights, i.e., "affected the outcome of the district court proceedings," ibid.; and (4) if the three other prongs are satisfied, the court

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of appeals has the discretion to remedy the error if it " 'seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings,' " id., at 736, 113 S.Ct. 1770. The question here is not whether plain-error review applies when a defendant fails to preserve a claim that the Government defaulted on its plea-agreement obligations, but what conceivable reason exists for disregarding its evident [129 S.Ct. 1426] application. The breach undoubtedly violates the defendant's rights, but the defendant has the opportunity to seek vindication of those rights in district court; if he fails to do so, Rule 52(b) as clearly sets forth the consequences for that forfeiture as it does for all others. Pp. 1428–1429. (b) Neither Puckett's doctrinal arguments nor the practical considerations that he raises counsel against applying plain-error review in the present context. The Government's breach of the plea agreement does not retroactively cause the defendant's guilty plea to have been unknowing or involuntary. This Court's decision in Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 92 S.Ct. 495, 30 L.Ed.2d 427, does not govern, since the question whether an error can be found harmless is different from the question whether it can be subjected to plain-error review. Puckett is wrong in contending that no purpose is served by applying plain-error review: There is much to be gained by inducing the objection to be made at the trial court level, where (among other things) the error can often be remedied. And not all plea breaches will satisfy the doctrine's four prongs. Pp. 1429–1433.

505 F.3d 377, affirmed.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, J., joined.


Lars Robert Isaacson, Lewisville, TX, for petitioner.

Jonathan D. Hacker, Geoffrey M. Wyatt, O'Melveny & Myers LLP, Washington, D.C., Lars Robert Isaacson, Counsel of Record, Lewisville, Texas, for Petitioner.

Gregory G. Garre, Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Matthew W. Friedrich, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Lisa H. Schertler, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Kathleen A. Felton, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for United States.


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Scalia, Justice

The question presented by this case is whether a forfeited claim that the Government has violated the terms of a plea agreement is subject to the plain-error standard of review set forth in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.


In July 2002, James Puckett was indicted by a grand jury in the Northern District of Texas on one count of armed bank robbery, 18 U.S. C. §2113(a), (d), and one count of using a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, §924(c)(1). He negotiated a plea agreement with the Government, which was filed with the District Court on September 3, 2003. As part of that deal, Puckett agreed to plead guilty to both counts, waive his trial rights, and cooperate with the Government by being truthful regarding his participation in criminal activities. App. 51a-53a. In exchange, the Government agreed to the following two terms:

"8. The government agrees that Puckett has demonstrated acceptance of responsibility and thereby qualifies for a three-level reduction in his offense level."9. The government also agrees to request that Puckett's sentence be placed at the lowest end of the guideline level [129 S.Ct. 1427] deemed applicable by the Court." Id., at 54a.

To satisfy the first of these obligations, the Government filed a motion in the District Court pursuant to §3E1.1 of the United States Sentencing Commission's Guidelines Manual (Nov. 2003) (USSG). That provision directs sentencing courts to decrease a defendant's offense level under the Guidelines by two levels if he "clearly demonstrates acceptance of responsibility for his offense," and by a third level "upon motion of the government stating that the defendant has assisted authorities in the investigation or prosecution of his own misconduct by timely notifying authorities of his intention to enter a plea of guilty." Two weeks later, the

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District Court held a plea colloquy, see Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 11(b), and accepted Puckett's plea.

Because of delays due to health problems experienced by Puckett, sentencing did not take place for almost three years. In the interim, Puckett assisted another man in a scheme to defraud the Postal Service, and confessed that assistance (under questioning) to a probation officer. The officer prepared an addendum to Puckett's presentence report recommending that he receive no §3E1.1 reduction for acceptance of responsibility, on the theory that true acceptance of responsibility requires termination of criminal conduct. See USSG §3E1.1, comment., n. 1(b).

When sentencing finally did take place on May 4, 2006, Puckett's counsel objected to the addendum, pointing out that the Government had filed a motion requesting that the full three-level reduction in offense level be granted. The District Judge turned to the prosecutor, who responded that the motion was filed "a long time ago," App. 79a, before Puckett had engaged in the additional criminal behavior. She made clear that the Government opposed any reduction in Puckett's offense level for acceptance of responsibility. The probation officer then added his view that under the Guidelines, a reduction would be improper.

After hearing these submissions, the District Judge concluded that even assuming he had the discretion to grant the reduction, he would not do so. "[I]t's so rare [as] to be unknown around here where one has committed a crime subsequent to the crime for which they appear before the court and for them even then to get the three points." Id., at 80a–81a. He agreed, however, to follow the recommendation that the Government made, pursuant to its commitment in the plea agreement, that Puckett be sentenced at the low end of the applicable Guidelines range, which turned out to be 262 months in prison for the armed bank robbery and a mandatory minimum consecutive term of 84 months for the firearm crime. Had the District Court granted the three-level

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reduction for acceptance of responsibility, the bottom of the Guidelines range would have been 188 months for the robbery; the firearm sentence would not have been affected.

Importantly, at no time during the exchange did Puckett's counsel object that the Government was violating its obligations under the plea agreement by backing away from its request for the reduction. He never cited the relevant provision of the plea agreement. And he did not move to withdraw Puckett's plea on grounds that the Government had broken its sentencing promises.

On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Puckett did argue, inter alia, that the Government violated the plea agreement at...

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