March 25, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Puckett v. United States

On March 25, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Puckett v. United States, No. 07-9712.

When James Puckett pled guilty to armed bank robbery and another crime, the government agreed to recommend a three-level reduction in his offense level under the sentencing guidelines because he had demonstrated acceptance of responsibility.

Puckett's sentencing was delayed for nearly three years due to health problems. In the meantime, he assisted another man in a scheme to defraud the Postal Service. At sentencing, the government therefore argued against a reduction for acceptance of responsibility. Puckett did not object to the breach. The court denied the reduction. And Puckett appealed. On appeal, Puckett challenged the breach as an error and argued that it should be reviewed de novo rather than for plain error.

The Supreme Court rejected Puckett's argument and held that the government's breach of a plea agreement is subject to plain-error review on appeal if an objection to the breach is not preserved in the district court. Plain-error review, said the Court, is the ordinary rule, and exceptions to it are strictly circumscribed. There is no basis for creating an exception for a breach of a plea agreement, because a breach does not void the plea agreement by retroactively making the defendant's agreement involuntary. Nor does a breach create a "structural" error in the proceedings that makes them fundamentally unfair.

One question emerging from Puckett is whether the Court's earlier decision in Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971) is still good law. Santobello held that a preserved objection to the government's breach of a plea agreement warrants automatic reversal. In a footnote, however, the Puckett Court declared that "[w]e need not confront today the question whether Santobello's automatic-reversal rule has survived our recent elaboration of harmless-error principles." That sounds like an invitation for the government to raise the question in another case.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito joined. Justice Souter filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Stevens joined.

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