November 28, 2012
Petitioner Armarcion Henderson pled guilty in district court to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The district court judge gave Henderson a longer sentence than required to ensure that he could participate in a drug treatment program and Henderson did not object to the sentence. The district court denied Henderson's later motion to correct his sentence and he appealed to the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit reviewed the district court's decision for plain error under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) and, finding no substantial mistake by the district court, upheld the district court's sentencing. Henderson now argues that the Fifth Circuit should have reversed for plain error because, following Henderson's trial, the Supreme Court decided that judges cannot base a sentence on a defendant's rehabilitative needs. The United States argues that because the law pertaining to sentencing was not settled at the time of his trial and the defendant did not object to his sentence, Henderson's claims do not meet the Rule 52(b) standard. The Supreme Court's decision in this case will affect criminal defendants who use Rule 52(b) to appeal trial court decisions and will also impact judicial efficiency.
When the governing law is unsettled at the time of trial but settled in the defendant's favor by the time of appeal, should an appellate court reviewing for "plain error" apply Johnson’s time-of-appeal standard, as the First, Second, Sixth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits do, or should the appellate court apply the Ninth Circuit’s time-of-trial standard, which the D.C. Circuit and the panel below have adopted?
Whether an appellate court can find plain error in a lower court's sentencing where the law was unsettled at the time of the appellant’s trial and the appellant did not object to his sentence at trial?