Direct Appeal Issues in Federal Court – Plain Error vs. Abuse of Discretion

There are lots of issues that can be raised on direct appeal from an original sentencing hearing or trial. Too many than can be established in one blog post. Lawyers who practice in federal courts spend years litigating cases and studying law at the district level and sometimes at the appeal level. This post gets pretty technical, so read on at your own pace (risk).

Direct appeals from criminal cases can bring up evidence that should have been suppressed,1 or other actions that should have been taken legally by the district court but weren’t. For example, take the case of United States v. Fricosu (read up on the case here, here, and here). In this case, the government tried to force the defendant to give up her passwords so they could prosecute her for what was (hopefully) on her encrypted hard drives. The appeals court had to determine if this violated Fricosu’s 5th Amendment protections against self incrimination.

Aside from the many issues that are unique to a case and are argued at the lowest level of courts, there are two main places where Courts of Appeal will rule on sentences and convictions from district-level judges. These handle issues of plain error and abuse of discretion.

Plain Error

Each circuit has their own set of cases that define plain error reviews, but they all tend to revolve around a very easy, common sense definition of “plain error”. If the judge makes an obvious error, then the appeals court will send it back for correction.

A good example of this is if the judge mistakenly sentences a defendant with 4 extra points added to the offense level being sentenced. Depending on where they land on the federal sentencing table, 4 points could mean the difference of 2+ years on a sentence. Say the 4-points was for a gun used in the commission of a crime, when there were no reports or evidence of guns at all. It just got added because somebody made a clerical error.

Once that sentence was pronounced by the district judge, the only place to correct the plainly erroneous sentence would be the appeals court. If a sentence or decision is made in plain error, the matter is, if explained well, a simple correction that is dictated by the appeals court.

Abuse of Discretion

Judges at the district level have pretty wide latitude to make certain decisions. Anything from re-hearing requests, motions for dismissal of indictment are posed to district judges every day and they have to make a decision on whether or not the request has legal merit. Judges, for lack of a better phrase, just use their best judgment. When this decisions go out of bounds in a bold or subtle way, the appeals courts have the job of correcting this.

The definition of these powers are set by the Circuit itself. For the 9th Circuit, they define their abuse of discretion standard this way:

The standard, as it is currently described, grants a court of appeals power to reverse a district court’s determination of facts tried before it, and the application of those facts to law, if the court of appeals forms a “definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” At the same time, the standard denies a court of appeals the power to reverse such a determination if the district court’s finding is “permissible.”

Because it has previously been left to us to decide, without further objective guidance, whether we have a “definite and firm conviction that mistake has been committed,” or whether a district court’s finding is “permissible,” there has been no effective limit on our power to substitute our judgment for that of the district court. United States v. Hinkson

If this sounds confusing, it usually is. However, the basis of the standard is simple. If the law allows for certain things at the judge’s discretion, anything outside of those certain things is abuse of discretion. If a district judge abuses his/her discretion on a simple matter, it can call into question the entire conviction. These arguments can be very nuanced, but can have very large impacts on the outcome of appeals.

That’s it for now, as a deeper discussion of abuse of discretion vs. plain error would get very VERY technical and boring. As if it weren’t already.

  1. Such as evidence gathered from an unlawful warrant, or testimony from an unreliable source []