HENDERSON v. UNITED STATES

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
11-9307
Petitioner 
Armarcion D. Henderson
Respondent 
United States
Decided By 
Advocates
(for the petitioner (appointed by the Court))
(Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent)
Term:
Facts of the Case 

Armarcion D. Henderson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of federal law. The sentencing guideline range was 33-41 months, but the judge sentenced Henderson to 60 months to ensure that he had the opportunity to enroll in the Bureau of Prisons drug program. Henderson did not object to the sentence. Eight days after sentencing, Henderson filed a motion to correct the sentence. The district court denied the motion.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that Henderson did not preserve the error for correction under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, so the court reviewed the decision for plain error. Henderson did not show plain error because the error was not clear under current law at the time of trial. The court of appeals denied a petition for rehearing en banc.

Question 

1. Did the Fifth Circuit err when it held that Henderson did not preserve the error?

2. Did the Fifth Circuit err in holding that Henderson did not show plain error in his sentence?

Conclusion 
Decision: 6 votes for Henderson, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

Yes and yes. Justice Stephen G. Breyer delivered the opinion for a 6-3 majority. The Supreme Court held that that an error is deemed to be a “plain error” based on the law at the time of the appellate review of the case, not at the time of the trial. It is unreasonable to expect either the defendant or the trial court to predict the outcome of unsettled issues of law, therefore it is the role of the appellate court to review what is considered “plain error” at the time of the appellate review.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that an issue of law that is unsettled at the time of the trial cannot be considered “plain error” for the purposes of appellate review. An error can only be plain if it should have been obvious to the court and the prosecution at the time of the trial. Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined in the dissent.

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HENDERSON v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 22 August 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_9307>.
HENDERSON v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_9307 (last visited August 22, 2014).
"HENDERSON v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 22, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2012/2012_11_9307.