Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

“Plain Error” — Absence of Intracircuit Authority and Circuit Split on Issue Render Alleged Error Anything But Plain

From United States v. Williams, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 14852 (3d Cir. July 20, 2010):

As noted earlier, we review the District Court's decision under the plain error standard. Thus, assuming that Williams is correct that the sentence imposed by the District Court exceeded the maximum prison term authorized by the supervised release statute, for Williams to prevail "we must find that . . . the error was plain, i.e., clear or obvious, and . . . the error affected the defendant's substantial rights." Knight, 266 F.3d at 206. "In addition, even where plain error exists [and substantial rights of the defendant are affected], our discretionary authority to order correction is to be guided by whether the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings." Id. "An error affects substantial rights when it is 'prejudicial: It must have affected the outcome of the district court proceedings.'" United States v. Vazquez-Lebron, 582 F.3d 443, 446 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 734, 113 S. Ct. 1770, 123 L. Ed. 2d 508 (1993)). Assuming the District Court erred here, the error affected the outcome because, in its absence, Williams would have received a different sentence. ***

However, the alleged error here, if error, was not "plain." The issue raised by Williams is one of first impression in this Circuit, and our sister Courts of Appeals have split regarding this issue. Due to the lack of authority from courts in this Circuit and the split among the other Courts of Appeals, we cannot conclude that the alleged error was "clear or obvious." See United States v. Baldwin, 563 F.3d 490, 492, 385 U.S. App. D.C. 281 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (relying on circuit split in finding no plain error); United States v. Andrews, 532 F.3d 900, 909, 382 U.S. App. D.C. 299 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (same).

[Footnote 4] *** United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 734, 113 S. Ct. 1770, 123 L. Ed. 2d 508 (1993) ("'Plain' is synonymous with 'clear' or, equivalently, 'obvious.'").

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