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Supreme Court to decide on standards for resolving plain errors

A conviction can be appealed on a number of grounds. One way of looking at it is that convictions (and civil cases) can be appealed based on an error of the law or an error in the facts. In some cases, factual errors are hard to gauge, as a reasonable jury might have decided the facts either way. In others, however, a factual error is a straightforward mistake, such as a mistake in math or a wrong date. This is called "plain error."

In a case involving an apparent mathematical error, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide what should happen when a defendant suffers from a plain error but fails to bring the issue up when it first arises.

The case before the court involves an immigrant who pled guilty to illegal reentry into the U.S. In federal cases, a "criminal history score" is used as part of the sentencing guidelines. The trial court sentenced him to 78 months in prison, basing its decision on the man's criminal history. Unfortunately, the court counted a previous conviction twice when making its calculation.

He appealed his sentence. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that counting the conviction twice was not plain error, first because the man had failed to raise the issue with the trial court. Second, it ruled the calculation did not constitute plain error because the sentence he received, even with the miscalculation, was still within the range of sentences for that offense. He received 78 months in prison, and the proper range of sentences was 70-87 months.

"There is no discrepancy between the sentence and the correctly calculated range," wrote the appellate panel. "We cannot say that the error or resulting sentence would shock the conscience."

When a sentencing judge makes an ordinary mathematical error, should the result have to "shock the conscience" in order for an appeals court to overturn it?

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case but has given no indication of how it will rule.

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