Puckett v. United States

Decision Date25 March 2009
Docket NumberNo. 07–9712.,07–9712.
Citation556 U.S. 129,173 L.Ed.2d 266,129 S.Ct. 1423
PartiesJames Benjamin PUCKETT, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

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.


Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

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 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 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 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 sentencing. The Government conceded that by objecting to the reduction for acceptance of responsibility, it had violated the obligation set forth in paragraph 8 of the agreement, but maintained that Puckett had forfeited this claim by failing to raise it in the District Court. The Court of Appeals agreed, and applied the plain-error standard that Rule 52(b) makes applicable to unpreserved claims of error. 505 F.3d 377, 384 (2007). It held that although error had occurred and was obvious, Puckett had not satisfied the third prong of the plain-error analysis by demonstrating that the error affected his substantial rights, i.e., caused him prejudice. Id., at 386. Especially in light of the District Judge's statement that granting a reduction when the defendant had continued to engage in criminal conduct was “so rare [as] to be unknown,” Puckett could not show that the Government's breach had affected his ultimate sentence. The Court of Appeals accordingly affirmed the conviction and sentence. Id., at 388.

We granted certiorari, 554 U.S. ––––, 129 S.Ct. 29, 171 L.Ed.2d 932 (2008), to consider a question that has divided the Federal Courts of Appeals: whether 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. See In re Sealed Case, 356 F.3d 313, 315–318 (C.A.D.C.2004) (discussing conflict among the Circuits). Concluding that Rule 52(b) does apply and in the usual fashion, we now affirm.


If a litigant believes that an error has occurred (to his detriment) during a federal judicial proceeding, he must object in order to preserve the issue. If he fails to do so in a timely manner, his claim for relief from the error is forfeited. “No procedural principle is more familiar to this Court than that a ... right may be forfeited in criminal as well as civil cases by the failure to make timely assertion of the right before a tribunal having jurisdiction to determine it.” Yakus v. United States, 321 U.S. 414, 444, 64 S.Ct. 660, 88 L.Ed. 834 (1944).

If an error is not properly preserved, appellate-court authority to remedy the error (by reversing the judgment, for example, or ordering a new trial) is strictly circumscribed. There is good reason for this; “anyone familiar with the work of courts understands that errors are a constant in the trial process, that most do not much matter, and that a reflexive inclination by appellate courts to reverse because of unpreserved error would be fatal.” United States v. Padilla, 415 F.3d 211, 224 (C.A.1 2005) (en banc) (Boudin, C. J., concurring).

This limitation on appellate-court authority serves to induce the timely raising of claims and objections, which gives the district court the opportunity to consider and resolve them. That court is ordinarily in the best position to determine the relevant facts and adjudicate the dispute. In the case of an actual or invited procedural error, the district court can often correct or avoid the mistake so that it cannot possibly affect the ultimate outcome. And of course the contemporaneous-objection rule prevents a litigant from ‘sandbagging’ the court—remaining silent about his objection and belatedly raising the error only if the case does not conclude in his favor. Cf. Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 89, 97 S.Ct. 2497, 53 L.Ed.2d 594 (1977) ; see also United States v. Vonn, 535 U.S. 55, 72, 122 S.Ct. 1043, 152 L.Ed.2d 90 (2002).

In federal criminal cases, Rule 51(b) tells parties how to preserve claims of error: “by informing the court—when the court ruling or order 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.” Failure to abide by this contemporaneous-objection rule ordinarily precludes the raising on appeal of the unpreserved claim of trial error. See United States v. Young, 470 U.S. 1, 15, and n. 12, 105 S.Ct. 1038, 84 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985). Rule 52(b), however, recognizes a limited exception to that preclusion. The Rule provides, in full: “A plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the court's attention.”

We explained in United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 113 S.Ct. 1770, 123 L.Ed.2d 508 (1993), that Rule 52(b) review—so-called “plain-error review”—involves four steps, or prongs. First, there must be an error or defect—some sort of [d]eviation from a legal rule”—that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned, i.e., affirmatively waived, by the appellant. Id., at 732–733, 113 S.Ct. 1770. Second, the legal error must be clear or obvious, rather...

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