U.S. v. Vontsteen

Decision Date07 January 1992
Docket NumberNo. 89-2745,89-2745
Citation950 F.2d 1086
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Gerald VONTSTEEN, a/k/a Skip Vontsteen Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

H. Michael Sokolow, Asst. Federal Public Defender, Roland E. Dahlin, II, Federal Public Defender, Houston, Tex., for defendant-appellant.

Paula C. Offenhauser, Asst. U.S. Atty., Henry K. Oncken, U.S. Atty., Houston, Tex., for plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.


W. EUGENE DAVIS, Circuit Judge:

Gerald Vontsteen appeals his sentence, claiming a due process violation under North Carolina v. Pearce, 395 U.S. 711, 89 S.Ct. 2072, 23 L.Ed.2d 656 (1969). A panel of this court gave plenary review to Vontsteen's claims and affirmed the sentence. Upon rehearing en banc, we, too, affirm Vontsteen's sentence, but hold only that the district court's sentence did not amount to plain error.


A jury convicted Gerald Vontsteen in January 1988 on twenty-one counts of aiding and abetting mail fraud (in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341 and 1342) and one count of transporting stolen goods (in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2314). The district court sentenced Vontsteen as follows: 1 (1) five years imprisonment on each of Counts 1 through 10, to run concurrently; (2) five years each on Counts 11 through 20, to run concurrently with each other but consecutive to the sentence imposed on Counts 1 through 10; (3) five years suspended on Count 21 for five years supervised probation, to commence on completion of parole; and (4) ten years on Count 22, to run concurrent with the sentence on Count 21, suspended for five years supervised probation, also to begin on completion of parole. Further, the court ordered five hundred hours of community service as a condition of probation. The net result of this sentencing package was ten years imprisonment followed by five years of supervised probation and five hundred hours of community service.

This court reversed the mail fraud convictions (Counts 1 through 21), vacated the entire sentence, and remanded for resentencing on Count 22. United States v. Vontsteen, 872 F.2d 626 (5th Cir.1989) (Vontsteen I ). At the resentencing hearing, the district court overruled Vontsteen's objections to the revised presentence report and resentenced him to ten years imprisonment, without any probation or community service to follow. Vontsteen made no objection to the sentence.

Vontsteen again appealed, raising inter alia the due process question at issue here. A divided panel of this court, after reviewing the merits of Vontsteen's argument, affirmed the sentence. United States v. Vontsteen, 910 F.2d 187 (5th Cir.1990) (Vontsteen II ), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 801, 112 L.Ed.2d 862 (1991). We granted rehearing en banc to consider Vontsteen's Pearce claim. 919 F.2d 957 (5th Cir.1990).


Vontsteen argues that the district court's sentence violates due process under North Carolina v. Pearce, 395 U.S. 711, 89 S.Ct. 2072, 23 L.Ed.2d 656 (1969). In Pearce the Supreme Court addressed judicial vindictiveness by trial courts against defendants who take successful appeals. To ensure that defendants are free from even the apprehension of such judicial vindictiveness, the Court:

concluded that whenever a judge imposes a more severe sentence upon a defendant after a new trial, the reasons for his doing so must affirmatively appear. Those reasons must be based upon objective information concerning identifiable conduct on the part of the defendant occurring after the time of the original sentencing proceeding. And the factual data upon which the increased sentence is based must be made part of the record, so that the constitutional legitimacy of the increased sentence may be fully reviewed on appeal.

Id. at 726, 89 S.Ct. at 2081. Vontsteen argues that the district court failed to satisfy this mandate when it resentenced him following his successful appeal. He maintains that his second sentence was "more severe" for Pearce purposes because the sentence on Count 22 increased from five years probation to ten years imprisonment. According to Vontsteen, the sentence violates Pearce because the court's reasons for the more severe sentence do not "affirmatively appear."


We first address 2 the standard of review. The panel majority in Vontsteen II gave plenary review to Vontsteen's claim of Pearce error. Because Vontsteen failed to make a contemporaneous objection and alert the district court to the claimed Pearce violation, we conclude that the proper standard is plain error.

The Supreme Court grounded the Pearce rule in constitutional due process of law. Pearce, 395 U.S. at 725, 89 S.Ct. at 2080. This does not, however, excuse a defendant from the usual requirement that he lodge a contemporaneous objection to preserve an issue for appeal. "No procedural principle is more familiar to this Court than that a constitutional 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, 676, 88 L.Ed. 834 (1944). The Supreme Court recently noted that the "most basic rights of criminal defendants" are subject to waiver under the contemporaneous objection rule. Peretz v. United States, --- U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 2661, 2669, 115 L.Ed.2d 808, 822 (1991) (waiver of right to have Article III judge preside at jury selection), citing United States v. Gagnon, 470 U.S. 522, 528, 105 S.Ct. 1482, 1485, 84 L.Ed.2d 486 (1985) (absence of objection constitutes waiver of right to be present at all stages of criminal trial); Levine v. United States, 362 U.S. 610, 619, 80 S.Ct. 1038, 1044, 4 L.Ed.2d 989 (1960) (failure to object to closing of courtroom is waiver of right to public trial); Segurola v. United States, 275 U.S. 106, 111, 48 S.Ct. 77, 79, 72 L.Ed. 186 (1927) (failure to object constitutes waiver of Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure); United States v. Figueroa, 818 F.2d 1020, 1025 (1st Cir.1987) (failure to object results in forfeiture of claim of unlawful postarrest delay); United States v. Bascaro, 742 F.2d 1335, 1365 (11th Cir.1984) (absence of objection is waiver of double jeopardy defense); United States v. Coleman, 707 F.2d 374, 376 (9th Cir.1983) (failure to object constitutes waiver of Fifth Amendment claim).

The reasons for the contemporaneous objection rule are well known. "This salutory [sic] rule has its roots in obvious considerations of finality of the criminal trial process, of judicial efficiency, and of avoiding trials by ambush." United States v. Perez, 651 F.2d 268, 273 (5th Cir. Unit A July 1981). More fully,

"There are many rationales for the raise-or-waive rule: that it is a necessary corollary of our adversary system in which issues are framed by the litigants and presented to a court; that fairness to all parties requires a litigant to advance his contentions at a time when there is an opportunity to respond to them factually, if his opponent chooses to; that the rule promotes efficient trial proceedings; that reversing for error not preserved permits the losing side to second-guess its tactical decisions after they do not produce the desired result; and that there is something unseemly about telling a lower court it was wrong when it never was presented with the opportunity to be right. The principal rationale, however, is judicial economy: (1) if the losing side can obtain an appellate reversal because of error not objected to, the parties and public are put to the expense of retrial that could have been avoided had an objection been made; and (2) if an issue had been raised in the trial court, it could have been resolved there, and the parties and public would be spared the expense of an appeal."

Wayne R. LaFave and Jerold H. Israel, 3 Criminal Procedure § 26.5 at 251-52 (West, 1984) (footnote omitted) (quoting State v. Applegate, 39 Or.App. 17, 591 P.2d 371, 373 (1979)). The contemporaneous objection rule applies to sentencing hearings as well as to trials. United States v. Lopez, 923 F.2d 47 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 2032, 114 L.Ed.2d 117 (1991).

Vontsteen attempts to avoid the contemporaneous objection rule by suggesting that the Supreme Court's use of the word "must" 3 in articulating the Pearce rule renders the procedure mandatory. We disagree. Such wording "is a general feature of legal rules, and does not make their provisions nonwaivable. Specific rules of conduct or procedure are promulgated against a background of understandings concerning the procedure for invoking the benefits of rules, or for waiving those benefits." United States v. Giovannetti, 928 F.2d 225, 226 (7th Cir.1991). The contemporaneous objection rule is such a "background of understanding."

Moreover, the burden imposed by the contemporaneous objection rule on the defendant's right to be free of judicial vindictiveness is minimal. After the district court has announced its sentence, any vindictiveness present in the resentencing has already occurred. Vontsteen, and defendants like him, have nothing further to fear and nothing to lose by objecting to the sentence.

In short, any diminution in the defendant's right protected by Pearce is outweighed by gains to the adversary system, judicial economy, and appellate orderliness. Vontsteen asks us to remand so that the district court can reconsider and explain its second sentence in light of Pearce. But Vontsteen could easily have asked for this relief at the sentencing hearing. "The plain error doctrine is designed to avoid just such a circuitous waste of judicial resources." Lopez, 923 F.2d at 50. We hold that Vontsteen was required to...

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