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Plain Error Rule

What Is the Title Plain Error Rule in Federal Appeals?

Under the United States legal system, every person accused of a crime has the right to a fair trial. However, mistakes can happen during court proceedings, even with strict procedures; some errors may negatively impact the trial outcome or deprive the defendant of their constitutional rights.

Under standard court procedure, legal counsel must object to an error as soon as it occurs to "preserve" the error for later appeal—and if this fails to happen, the appellate court usually won't consider it.

Plain Error Rule in Federal Appeals
A plain error is one that is “plainly” evident from the record and affects a person’s legal rights.

However, the exception to this rule is what's known as the "plain error" rule in federal criminal appeals. If the error is obvious and can be easily seen as negatively impacting the defendant's rights, the court may consider the error even if no prior objection was raised.

Plain error refers to a special standard of review that permits an appellate court to review a decision that is considered particularly at odds with the laws. As noted, someone is not required to preserve an error for appeal by raising an objection to behavior at trial.

The plain error standard typically only applies to cases where refusing the appeal would result in justice not being served. To successfully argue a plain error case, someone must be able to prove the existence of certain crucial elements.

These include an error that was clear or obvious in nature that affected their rights significantly and seriously affected the fairness or integrity of judicial proceedings. A plain error is an error that is “plainly” evident from the record and affects a person's legal rights. 

While an appellate court typically only reviews errors brought to its attention by a litigant, they have the discretion to correct plain errors that were not addressed or forfeited when not doing so could affect the integrity and reputation of the courts.

Notably, however, this power and authority is not mandatory. Plain errors usually involve criminal procedure issues. Let's take a closer look below.

What Does the Plain Error Rule Say?

The right of the defendant to appeal based on plain error is embodied in Rule 52 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure regarding "Harmless and Plain Error." The text says:

(a) Harmless Error. Any error, defect, irregularity, or variance that does not affect substantial rights must be disregarded.

(b) Plain Error. A plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the court's attention.

In other words, the appellate court will not address errors that have no real bearing or impact on the case outcome. Still, in situations where the error is plain, obvious, and material, the court may consider whether it negatively affected the outcome.

What About the United States Supreme Court?

In determining whether there is a plain error under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 52, the United States Supreme Court has established specific standards that must be met, such as the following:

  • The appellant has not affirmatively waived the error.
  • The error must be obvious and cannot be reasonably contested.
  • The error must have affected the appellant's substantive rights.
  • It must be shown that it was prejudicial or affected the outcome of the lower court's proceedings.
  • The defendant has the burden to show prejudice.
  • If the above conditions are satisfied, the appellate court has the discretion of correcting the error only if it seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or reputation of judicial proceedings.

What Is a "Plain Error?"

In federal appeals, a "plain error" refers to a clear or obvious mistake made by the trial court during the proceedings—precisely, one that was not objected to when it occurred.

What Is a "Plain Error?"
In a federal appeal, a "plain error" is an obvious mistake the trial court makes during proceedings.

This error must be "plainly evident" from the court record, and it must be evident that it affects the defendant's substantial rights and undermines the judicial proceedings' fairness, integrity, or public reputation.  

An example includes an evident miscalculation of a defendant's sentence, resulting in a longer than necessary federal sentence.

It's crucial to note that identifying a plain error involves a meticulous four-step process, and only if all these conditions are met may an appellate court exercise its discretion to correct the error.

We should note that invoking this rule in a federal appeal is not a casual affair. To maintain its integrity and efficiency, the judicial process typically requires parties to raise specific and contemporaneous objections during the trial at or near the time when the error occurred, and the courts may then review these errors on appeal.

The court reserves the right to reject these objections if they weren't raised in a timely manner. However, the plain error rule provides a crucial exception to the "specific and contemporaneous" rule. If the error meets the criteria of a "plain error," the appellate court will consider it even if no objection was raised when it occurred.

Identifying a Plain Error on Appeal

While the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure don't clearly define what constitutes a "plain error," case law has established a four-pronged approach to determine whether a plain error has occurred during court proceedings. These criteria are as follows:

  1. Existence of an Error: The first burden of proof is that there must be an error. This refers to any "deviation from a legal rule" not waived by the party appealing.
  2. Clear or Obvious Nature of the Error: The error in question must be clear or obvious, so contesting its validity or existence would not be considered reasonable.
  3. Effect on Substantial Rights: The error must have affected the defendant's substantial rights. The error must have been prejudicial, meaning it likely influenced the outcome of the district court proceedings.
  4. Serious Effect on Judicial Proceedings: The error must seriously affect judicial proceedings' fairness, integrity, or public reputation. The appellate court has the discretion to correct the error only if it seriously impugns the broader fairness and integrity of the judicial process.

It should be noted that the defendant bears the burden of persuasion for the first three steps. The fourth step is discretionary with the appellate court, which will decide whether the plain error should be corrected.

The role of the plain error rule is monumental in its ability to affect a case's outcome. If classified as a plain error, it could lead to the overturning of a conviction or the adjustment of a sentence. Thus, comprehending this rule is vital for individuals in federal criminal cases. Contact Eisner Gorin LLP for a case review and to discuss legal options. Our law firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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