Opinions: Repeat Litigants at the Court and Sentencing Guidelines

In a decision issued the same day as the partisan gerrymandering opinions, the Supreme Court ruled in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach. This is the second opinion the Court has issued involving Fane Lozman and the City of Riviera Beach — and the lawsuits are related but independent of each other. In 2013, Lozman won a case against the city in which the Court determined that his houseboat was not a “vessel” subject to maritime law. In the case at hand, Lozman was kicked out of a city council meeting and arrested for disturbing a lawful assembly when he ignored the council’s demands to not discuss local government corruption. The prosecutor determined there was probable cause for his arrest but dropped the charges. Lozman then brought his case alleging he was falsely arrested in a retaliatory action. As Robert Barnes of The Washington Post reports, the Court found again for Lozman, albeit narrowly. Lozman did not dispute the probable cause for his arrest; however he claimed it violated the First Amendment because he was arrested in retaliation due to his earlier protected lawsuit and his prior criticisms of public officials.  The Court agreed that the probable cause does not bar his First Amendment claim, but he will have to show “the existence and enforcement of an official policy motivated by retaliation” of the city council. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for an eight-justice majority (only Justice Thomas dissented), stated “It must be underscored that this Court has recognized the ‘right to petition as one of the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights,” and that Lozman’s speech “is high in the hierarchy of First Amendment values.”

Richard Wolf of USA Today reports this case had some concerned (including the Court) of possible implications for arresting police officers who may face lawsuits of their own “split-second” arrest decisions. The Court acknowledged this by stating the police “need the safe harbor of probable cause in the First Amendment context to be able to do their jobs effectively,” but also “there is a risk that some police officers may exploit the arrest power as a means of suppressing speech.”

On the same day, the Court also issued two opinions related to the federal sentencing guidelines. Rosales-Mireles v. United States involves the doctrine of “plain error,” which applies when a clear error occurs in the trial court but the criminal defendant fails to object at the time. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reviewed the case under United States v. Olano, which articulated four conditions that must be satisfied for an appellate court to correct an error that defendant did not object to at trial: (1) there must be an error; (2) that error must be “plain” or “obvious”; (3) that error must affect substantial rights (i.e., it affected the outcome of the district court proceedings); and (4) the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. While the Fifth Circuit found that the first three conditions were satisfied in the present case, it declined to vacate and remand the case because it said that Rosales-Mireles did not show that the error was one that would “shock the conscience of the common man.”

In a 7-2 opinion, the Court disagreed with the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of the fourth prong, calling it “unduly restrictive.” In explaining its decision to reverse the Fifth Circuit’s decision and remand the case for resentencing, the Court criticized the narrow standard as only allowing those errors that rise to the level of grossly serious misconduct to be corrected. That a defendant could be unnecessarily deprived of his or her liberty due to a plain error, even if unintentional, undermines the public legitimacy of judicial proceedings, wrote Justice Sotomayor, regardless of whether the ultimate sentence falls within the correct range.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, dissented from the majority opinion, accusing the Court of rendering the fourth Olano prong largely illusory. He further argue that the error in the present case was unlikely to have affected the substantive outcome of the case, and that the Court should not have allowed a purely procedural error to satisfy the fourth prong of plain error review. The case is discussed by the Courthouse News Service, and Jurist and those who are interested in reading the opinion itself can find it in full, here.

The Court also issued its opinion in Chavez-Meza v. United States, which asked a different question relating to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines: in explaining its decision not to grant a particular type of sentence reduction, must a court provide a lengthy explanation? Here,  the judge stated only that he had considered Chavez-Meza’s motion and took into account the relevant Guidelines policy statement and statutory factors. The Court here upheld the sentence. Justice Kennedy, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, dissented, calling the order reducing Chavez-Meza’s sentence “terse” and “insufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review.” This case is also discussed by the Courthouse News Service; to read the opinion itself, click here.

ISCOTUS Fellows Zoe Arthurson-McColl, Chicago-Kent Class of 2020, and Matthew Webber, Chicago-Kent Class of 2019, contributed to this post, which was edited by ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator Anna Jirschele, Class of 2018, and overseen by Chicago-Kent faculty member and ISCOTUS co-director Carolyn Shapiro.

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