Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lett: No Rule 35(a) authority to modify sentence where error was not "clear"

In U.S. v. Lett, No. 06-12537 (Apr. 6, 2007), the Court held that a sentencing "error" was not "clear" enough (if sentencing error even occurred) to authorize the district court’s correction of a sentence pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 35(a).
The defendant, a war veteran who had served the country with distinction, was convicted of drug trafficking. His guideline sentence was 70 months. The statutory mandatory minimum was 60 months. The defendant sought a safety-valve reduction below the mandatory minimum – and the guideline sentence. Believing that it was not authorized to sentence below the mandatory minimum when the Guideline range was above the mandatory minimum, the district court imposed a 60-month sentence. A motion was then filed under Rule 35(a), arguing that post-Booker, the court was in fact authorized to grant the defendant a safety-valve sentence. The district court noted that the answer to this question was "not clear" because of the lack of applicable caselaw. It decided to modify the sentence, and imposed a sentence of time served, in effect, eleven days.
Reversing, the Court of Appeals pointed out that to show "clear error" under Rule 35(a), a party had to show "obvious errors." Here, the error was not obvious, because the district court merely misunderstood (at most) its sentencing discretion, but still imposed a permissible sentence under the Guidelines and applicable statutes. "Arguable error is one thin, and clear error is another." In the absence of caselaw on point in the Circuit, no clear error occurred. The Court remanded with instructions to impose the original 60 months sentence.