Holguin-Hernandez v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, February 2020)

Appellate Procedure/Sentencing – A defendant preserves his right to appeal a sentence as substantively unreasonable as long as he advocates for a lower sentence than he ultimately receives.

After violating the terms of his supervised release, Holguin-Hernandez was sentenced to 12 months in prison after the court revoked his supervised release. At the hearing, Holguin-Hernandez’s counsel had requested no time or less time. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the defense’s request for a specific sentence, lower than the sentence ultimately imposed, was sufficient to preserve their ability to appeal the sentence as substantively unreasonable.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that it was. Specifically, the justices held that defendant preserves their right to challenge a sentence as unreasonable on appeal as long as he or she “advocates for a sentence shorter than the one ultimately imposed.” Citing Rule 51(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Court explained that a claim is preserved for appeal as long as the party seeking to preserve the claim informs the court of “the action the party wishes the court to take, or the party’s objection to the court’s action and the grounds for that objection.” Here, asking for a shorter sentence was sufficient under Rule 51(b).

In a concurring opinion, Justice Alito stressed that this ruling only applies to preserving a claim regarding the substantive reasonableness of the sentence, not the procedural reasonableness. He also argued that the plain-error standard should apply to a defendant’s “specific” arguments regarding the substantive reasonableness of his sentence.

On certiorari to the Fifth Circuit

Opinion by Breyer, joined by the rest of the Court

Concurring opinion by Alito, joined by Gorsuch

Click here to read the opinion.


Tom Church

Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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