The right to have an error corrected by a Federal appellate court can depend on the nature of the error, specifically the underlying rights that were affected by the error. This case will answer the question of whether or not a discretionary standard, Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, should apply to errors involving a plea agreement breach by a prosecutor that was not objected to by the defendant’s counsel when it was made.
James Puckett was charged in Federal District Court with armed bank robbery and use of a firearm during the commission of the crime. Puckett agreed to plead guilty to both charges partially in exchange for the prosecutor’s promise to recommend a sentencing reduction to the judge based on Puckett’s acceptance of responsibility for his crimes. After the plea agreement but before the sentencing, Puckett engaged in acts to defraud the United States Postal Service, and the prosecutor refused to recommend the sentencing reduction. Puckett’s counsel did not formally object to the prosecutor’s refusal to file the recommendation, thus creating a “forfeited” error. Consequently, when the court sentenced Puckett, he received no reduction in his sentence. On appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Puckett requested that the case be remanded and that he be allowed to revoke his guilty plea. The Fifth Circuit denied Puckett’s request and upheld the sentence, finding that Puckett had not met his burden under Rule 52(b). Under Rule 52(b), the party challenging the error must prove that the error was significant enough to warrant reversal even though the party forfeited his right to have the court consider the error by not objecting when it occurred. Puckett sought review by the Supreme Court and his writ of certiorari was granted on October 1, 2008.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether a forfeited claim that the government breached a plea agreement is subject to the plain error standard of Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
In July 2002, petitioner James Benjamin Puckett was charged in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas for bank robbery and use of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence. SeeU.S. v. Puckett, 505 F.3d 377, 381 (5th Cir. 2007). On September 18, 2003, Puckett pleaded guilty to both counts. SeeId. As part of the plea agreement, the government stated that Puckett qualified for a three-level reduction in his offense level, which would allow Puckett to have a shorter sentence then he would otherwise. SeeId. The government also filed a motion in support of the three-level reduction. SeeId.
Two months after he pleaded guilty, Puckett suffered a seizure and was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. SeeId. Puckett’s tumor was removed, and at the request of defense counsel, the court ordered physical and neurological evaluations to determine Puckett’s current mental capacity and his mental capacity at the time of the offense. SeeId.
Two years after his guilty plea, Puckett filed a “Claim of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel,” arguing that his attorney had failed to investigate his brain condition and defend him on the basis of diminished capacity or mental defect. SeeId.. In November 2005, Puckett, acting as his own attorney, filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that his brain tumor and bi-polar disorder made him incompetent to plead guilty. SeeId. The district court rejected Puckett’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel and denied his motion to withdraw the guilty plea because it found that not enough medical evidence existed to show that he suffered from bi-polar disorder or incompetency. SeeId.
In March 2006, due to the long delay in sentencing, the district court ordered Puckett’s probation officer to interview Puckett and update the original presentence investigation report for his case. SeeId. In the interviews, Puckett admitted to helping another inmate defraud the government while Puckett was awaiting sentencing in the case. SeeId. The probation officer recorded this new criminal conduct in an addendum to the presentence investigation report, and recommended that Puckett not receive an offense-level reduction. SeeId. At Puckett’s sentencing, the government, in breach of its plea agreement with Puckett, agreed that Puckett was no longer entitled to an offense-level reduction. SeeId. at 381-382. Puckett argued that the new criminal conduct did not bar an offense-level reduction, but he did not object to his sentence on the basis that the government had breached the original plea agreement. SeeId. at 382. The district court did not reduce the offense level, sentencing Puckett to a total of 346 months in prison. SeeId.
Puckett appealed his case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, arguing four points: 1) the district court abused its discretion in denying his request to withdraw his guilty plea; 2) the government’s breach of the plea agreement made the agreement unenforceable; 3) the district court erred in denying him a reduction for acceptance of responsibility; and 4) the court should renew his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. SeeId. The Fifth Circuit rejected Puckett’s appeal and affirmed his sentence and conviction on October 23, 2007. SeeId. at 388.
Puckett subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted certiorari on October 1, 2008. SeePuckett v. U.S., No. 07-9712 (U.S. 2008).
The Federal Courts have a strong policy in favor of resolving errors at the time they occur. See Brief for Respondent, United States of America, at 16. Ordinarily this means that a party must bring the error to the courts attention by objecting to the error or else risk forfeiting their right to have the error corrected. See Brief for Respondent at 10-11. “Forfeited” errors are thus errors to which a timely objection has not been made. Certain fundamental errors cannot be forfeited, or for that matter waived, and will be reversed automatically on appeal. See Brief of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) in Support of Petitioner at 14-21. Other errors, including those that have been waived or forfeited, can be corrected on appeal but only at the courts discretion. See Brief of NACDL at 12-13. The Plain-Error doctrine, found in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, is the Federal Court’s method of dealing with the latter category of errors. Rule 52(b) is designed to “correct forfeited errors” that are brought up for the first time after disposition of the issue, usually on an appeal. Brief of NACDL at 12.While a timely objection to errors entitles a party to correction of the errors as a right, a party challenging a forfeited error on appeal faces a much higher burden. The party must meet the four part test developed under Rule 52(b) by showing “(1) that there was an error in the district court proceeding; (2) that the error was plain; (3) that the error affected substantial rights . . .; and (4) . . . that the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Brief of NACDL at 12-13. Since this test is subject to the courts discretion, the Rule is “permissive, not mandatory.” Brief for Petitioner, James Benjamin Puckett, at 23. Puckett and the United States disagree as to whether the Plain-Error doctrine should apply when the error involves a prosecutor reneging on a plea agreement. They also argue over the merits of adopting a per se rule requiring reversal under Rule 52(b), taking different stances on whether the four prongs will always be met because of this type of error.
Does the Plain-Error Doctrine Apply?
Puckett’s argument for why the Plain-Error doctrine does not apply to breaches of plea agreements centers on the unique “nonforfeitable” nature of certain trial rights. See Brief for Petitioner, James Benjamin Puckett, at 10–11. The many Constitutional rights a criminal defendant gives up when entering into a plea agreement are essential components of due process. See Brief for Petitioner, at 11. As such, Puckett argues that these rights can be waived but not forfeited. SeeId. at 12. For such a waiver to accord with due process, it must be entered into “voluntary[ily] and knowing[ly]” by the accused. Id., at 12. Puckett believes that when a prosecutor fails to perform his or her end of the bargain under the plea agreement, it is no longer voluntary. SeeId. at 16. This is because the underlying terms, which have necessarily changed, constitute a new agreement to which the defendant did not voluntarily agree. SeeId. at 13. Puckett concludes that since reversal is already required for such due process violations, the Plain-Error doctrine under Rule 52(b) does not apply. SeeId. at 20.
In response to Puckett, the United States points to the “familiar” principle that rights, Constitutional or otherwise, may be forfeited if timely objections are not made. See Brief for Respondent at 16. The United States also argues that the prosecutor’s error does not make the plea agreement involuntary because the recommendations are not binding on the courts. See Brief for Respondent at 28. Thus, what the defendant is bargaining for is “a chance that the sentencing court would . . . follow the government’s recommendation.” Id. at 28. That chance is not vitiated in every case by the prosecutor’s error, because, as the United States points out, the court may arrive at the same result notwithstanding the prosecutor’s error. See Id. at 28. In that case, the breach would not require a remedy because there would be no actual harm. See Id. at 30.
Puckett goes on to argue that because the rights are waivable and not forfeitable, the lack of an objection at the time of the error is of no moment. See Brief for Petitioner at 12. Puckett’s argument proceeds along the lines that the defendant’s counsel can no more waive these rights on behalf of a defendant, in this case by not objecting, than he could enter a plea of guilty without the defendant’s consent. SeeId. at 12. In other words, Puckett finds the Plain-Error doctrine under Rule 52(b) to be a poor fit because it presumes that counsel could waive or forfeit rights that can only be waived by the defendant. SeeId. at 12.
The United States does not see counsel’s failure to object as a waiver of the defendant’s rights. See Brief for Respondent at 31. This is because defendant previously made the waiver by entering into the plea agreement; it concludes that if the error is truly prejudicial, it will be corrected under the Plain-Error doctrine of Rule 52(b). See Id. at 31.
If the Plain-Error Doctrine Applies should a prosecutor’s breach of a plea agreement require reversal in all cases under the test?
If the Plain-Error doctrine does apply, Puckett urges the Court to adopt a per se rule of reversal because the four requirements under the Rule 52(b) test would always be met. See Brief for Petitioner at 24, 30. The first prong is easily satisfied because there is an error. See Id. at 24. Puckett notes that the second prong, requiring a breach to be “plain,” is clear in his case, but nonetheless argues that it makes little sense to apply that prong to review of breaches of plea agreements. See Id. at 24. Rule 52(b) is designed to correct plain errors, errors that are “so obvious that either the court or the prosecutor should have noticed and corrected them even without objection from counsel.” Id. at 24. Puckett argues that here, Rule 52(b) test is a poor fit, because the court is seldom aware of plea agreement terms, rendering it ill equipped to correct any errors. SeeId. at 24. Similarly, the prosecutor is the actor consciously engaging in the breach and also not likely to correct it. SeeId. at 24. Thus, according to Puckett, the inquiry into the plainness of the error would be a “futile and pointless exercise.” Id. at 25.
The United States disagrees that the court will not be in a position to correct such errors, pointing out that the district court judge has “direct and personal responsibility” for knowing the terms of the plea agreement. Brief for Respondent at 19. Similarly, the district court is in a better position than the appellate court to remedy the error, because it has the background knowledge need to make such a “fact specific” ruling. Id. at 20.
The third prong of Rule 52(b) will always be met, according to Puckett, because the rights waived in a plea agreement are “substantial” both in terms of their importance and their inherent prejudicial effect on the defendant. Puckett points out that those rights—the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront one’s accuser, the right against self-incrimination—are rights found in the Constitution and are therefore substantial. See Brief for Petitioner at 11. Even if courts determine the importance of the right forfeited by considering whether its forfeiture is prejudicial to the defendant, the error is still substantial because it is clearly prejudicial in light of “its effect on the underlying plea.” Id. at 26.
The United States feels that Puckett is too narrow in his examination of the third prong. The United States uses as an example a situation where the error had no effect on the sentence imposed thus in no way causing prejudice to the defendant. See Brief for Respondent, at 37. In this sense, per se reversal on appeal, absent a finding of prejudice, would create “distorted incentives” by allowing a criminal defendant to engage in strategic gamesmanship. Id. at 24.
Puckett argues that the forth prong of Rule 52(b) will also be met every time a prosecutor materially breaches a plea agreement, because allowing such errors to go uncorrected would “seriously affect the fairness, integrity or public reputation” of the criminal proceeding. See Brief for Petitioner at 28. It is hardly fair, Puckett argues, to allow the prosecutor to unilaterally change a plea agreement, and it would undermine the trust in the criminal justice system if this unfairness went unpunished. See Brief for Petitioner at 28-29. This trust is essential, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argues, because defendants would not enter into plea agreements if they knew that its terms were not binding in all cases. See Brief of NACDL at 4-11.
The United States takes a contrary position in evaluating the forth prong, noting that allowing for reversal on a technicality, when the error was inconsequential, would allow the defendant to play games that would “upset an otherwise-final conviction.” See Brief for Respondent, at 40. Allowing defendants, possibly years after the error, to force the government to fully re-try a case, would undermine the “integrity and public reputation” of the system that final judgments protect. See Id., at 40.
The issue in this case is whether the plain error doctrine, found in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, governs a defendant’s forfeited claim that the government breached a plea agreement. SeePuckett v. U.S., No. 07-9712 (U.S. 2008). Petitioner James Benjamin Puckett argues that the plain error doctrine does not apply to the government’s plea agreement violation in this case. See Brief for Petitioner, James Benjamin Puckett, at 9-10. Puckett reasons that when a prosecutor breaches a trial waiver, as the government breached the plea agreement in this case, the breach is “inherently prejudicial.” Id. at 10. Respondent United States, on the other hand, argues that the plain error doctrine does govern this case because Puckett brought up his plea breach claim for the first time on appeal, rather than at the district court level. See Brief for Respondent, United States of America, at 12. The United States argues that Puckett’s sentence should be upheld because the plea agreement breach was not prejudicial, meaning that it did not change the final outcome of the district court’s decision. See Id.
The outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision in this case will affect at what point in a criminal proceeding a defendant can claim that the district court erred in ignoring a plea agreement violation, but this decision may have broader implications for the criminal justice system in general. According to the United States, if the plain error doctrine does not apply in cases like Puckett’s, a defendant could skirt district court review of a plea-breach claim and raise the claim on appeal instead. See Brief for Respondent at 13. The United States worries that if procedural moves like this were available, defendants would have little incentive to raise plea-breach claims in district court, which could undermine policy interests of efficiency and finality in criminal lawsuits. See Id. at 13-14, 17-18. The United States warns that the entire judicial process would suffer “disrepute” if defendants could withhold an objection at the district court level and subsequently get the district court’s opinion overturned on appeal even though the plea agreement violation did not change the outcome of the case. Brief for Respondent at 14.
The National Associaion of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) also believes that the outcome of this case could broadly impact the country’s criminal justice system, but for different reasons. NACDL argues that because plea bargaining is essential to the criminal justice system’s ability to function, the justice system should not implement policies that discourage defendants from pleading guilty. See Brief of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) in Support of Petitioner at 6. NACDL predicts that if defendants never pleaded guilty, governments would need to drastically increase the numbers of judges and court facilities to accommodate the much larger volume of cases that would proceed through the trial stage. SeeId. at 2, 6; see alsoSantobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 261 (1971).
According to NACDL, some of the benefits that plea agreements provide to society are efficient resolution of cases, shortened pre-trial confinement for defendants, and enhanced defendant rehabilitation. See Brief of NACDL at 7; see alsoSantobello, 404 U.S. at 261. NACDL predicts that guilty pleas and the benefits that accompany them could decline if the Supreme Court decides in favor of the United States, by causing defendants to distrust plea bargaining. See Brief of NACDL at 10-11. NACDL also emphasizes that courts must vigilantly protect defendants’ rights after a plea agreement breach in order for society as a whole to trust the criminal justice system. SeeId. at 3.
The United States, on the other hand, believes that the best way the justice system can ensure fair and efficient criminal trials is to encourage a full review of facts and claims the first time around, at the district court level. See Brief for Respondent at 16. According to the United States, the plain error doctrine fulfills this policy goal because it “promotes finality and judicial efficiency,” decreases the number of “wasteful” appellate reversals, and reduces “opportunities and incentives for gamesmanship” for criminal defendants. Brief for Respondent at 18.
The Supreme Court is tasked with assessing what role, if any, the Plain-Error doctrine in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure plays in errors relating to plea agreement breaches. Resolution of this question will likely turn on the importance the Supreme Court places on the rights forfeited by a criminal defendant when entering into a plea agreement. Similarly, the Supreme Court will have to balance the importance of these rights with the likely frequency with which plea agreement errors will meet the four prongs of the Plain-Error doctrine under Rule 52(b).