Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for “Preserving” Objection in Criminal Appeals

March 3rd, 2020 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense

If you are on trial for a criminal offense, the judge may make a number of decisions that you disagree with. Some of these decisions may seriously affect the outcome of the trial itself. As the defendant, you (or more commonly, your attorney) must object or otherwise bring a possible error to the judge’s attention as soon as possible. Even if the judge overrules your objection, you have still preserved a record of the alleged error or mistake.

This is critical should you decide to appeal a final conviction. An appellate court will typically not look at any objections or errors that were not properly “preserved” in the trial court. In other words, even if the trial judge did make a mistake, you cannot appeal it unless you actually made your objection for the record during the trial.

Court: Defense Attorney’s Request for Shorter Sentence Sufficient

The United States Supreme Court recently addressed a criminal case from Texas, Holguin-Hernandez v. United States where there was a disagreement over whether or not a defendant properly preserved an objection for appeal. The defendant, in this case, was convicted of federal offenses related to drug trafficking. This was not the defendant’s first conviction. At the time of the drug trafficking conviction, he was already on probation for another crime.

Consequently, federal prosecutors asked the trial court to revoke the defendant’s probation for the prior crime and to impose an additional sentence of 12 to 18 months in prison for that offense. The prosecution wanted this sentence to run consecutively–or on top of–the five years, the defendant received for the drug trafficking conviction. The defendant’s attorney argued this would be excessive and urged the trial judge to either impose “no additional time” for the probation violation or at the very least impose a sentence “below” what was advised in the federal sentencing guidelines.

The judge ultimately decided to impose an additional 12 months for the probation violation, which was “at the bottom of, but not below, the Guidelines range,” according to the Supreme Court. The defendant appealed the judge’s ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. But that court held the defendant failed to properly object to the “reasonableness of the sentence imposed” before the trial judge and therefore had not preserved the issue for appeal.

The Supreme Court disagreed. In a unanimous opinion reversing the Fifth Circuit, the justices explained that under federal court rules, a defendant merely needs to “inform” the trial court of the “action” they wish to take to preserve an issue for appeal. Here, the defendant asked the court to impose a shorter sentence “than the one actually imposed.” That was sufficient to preserve the defendant’s objection, the Supreme Court said. He did not have to make a specific objection to the “reasonableness” of the sentence, as the Fifth Circuit insisted.

Speak with a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

A criminal trial is a complex legal proceeding. There are many rules and procedures that can overwhelm a person who is not used to dealing with the court system. That is why it is essential to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney if you are facing state or federal charges. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston, or League City today if you need legal advice or representation in connection with any criminal matter. Call 281-280-0100


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