WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday issued two opinions protecting the rights of defendants in criminal court cases.
The court ruled 7-2 in Greenlaw v. United States that a U.S. court of appeals may not order an increase in a defendant's sentence on its own initiative.
The plaintiff,Michael Greenlaw,of Minneapolis,appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to shorten a 10-year prison sentence for a drug and firearms conviction. The court responded by correcting an error in his original sentence and lengthening his jail time by 15 years.
Under a longstanding precedent,Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion,an appellate court may not change a judgment to benefit the side that did not appeal.
Ginsburg emphasized the court's reactive role as an impartial arbiter,stating,”Appellate courts may not reach out to correct a sentencing error when the Government has not invited such error correction by appealing or cross-appealing.”
“In a criminal prosecution,moreover,” Ginsburg added,”the defendant would appeal at his peril,with nothing to alert him that,on his own appeal,his sentence would be increased until the appeals court so decreed. In this very case,Greenlaw might have made different strategic decisions had he known soon after filing his notice of appeal that he risked a 15-year increase in an already lengthy sentence.”
Justices Samuel A. Alito and John Paul Stevens dissented,holding that the decision to correct errors and impose harsher punishments should be left to the discretion of the court.
“We have long held that a sentencing court confronted with new circumstances may impose a stiffer sentence on remand than the defendant received prior to a successful appeal,” Alito wrote.
In Rothgery v. Gillespie County,Texas,the court ruled 8-1 that a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel applies at the defendant's first appearance before a judicial officer,when he is told of the charges against him,regardless of whether a prosecutor is aware of the arrest or involved in the case.
“We have recognized that certain pretrial events may so prejudice the outcome of the defendant's prosecution that,as a practical matter,the defendant must be presented at those events in order to enjoy genuinely effective assistance at trial,” Alito wrote in a concurring opinion.
Walter Rothgery was arrested on information that turned out to be false. He argued that had he had a lawyer earlier in the process he could have avoided being indicted and spending three weeks in jail before the charges were dismissed.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion,arguing for a stricter definition of “criminal prosecution” as specified in the Sixth Amendment. Under that definition,defendants would not have a right to a lawyer until they face formal charges,such as an indictment.
The court set Wednesday as an additional day to issue opinions. It has seven cases left to decide in this term.