“Any Last Words?” — Allocution Prejudice Is Once Again Presumed – Update for May 30, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


For more than 300 years, courts have recognized that a criminal defendant has a right to speak directly to the court before sentence is imposed. The judge’s failure to ask a defendant if he had anything to say – known as the right of allocution – traditionally has always required reversal. After all, as the Supreme Court put it, “the most persuasive counsel may not be able to speak for a defendant as the defendant might, with halting eloquence, speak for himself.”

allocution170530The allocution cases that make it to appeal inevitably result because the judge forgets to offer the defendant the right, and the defense attorney fails to notice the omission. In those cases – because no objection has been lodged – in order to complain about the mistake, a defendant had to show “plain error” that prejudiced him, affected his “substantial rights” as Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52 puts it.

Until the Guidelines came along in 1987, the courts always assumed that a defendant had been prejudiced if he or she was denied allocution, because the right had “symbolic meaning that lent legitimacy to the sentencing process.” But after the Guidelines, courts ruled that prejudice could be found only if a defendant was not “given the opportunity to speak to the court when the possibility of a lower sentence existed.” Until United States v. Booker – that is, for about 18 years – the Guidelines were mandatory, meaning the judge had virtually determined by the Guidelines’ confusing calculus.

This meant that if a defendant had a mandatory sentencing range of, say, 108-121 months, and the judge sentenced him or her to 108 months, the defendant could not claim prejudice because he or she was denied a chance to speak, because practically speaking, the defendant had already gotten the best deal he or she could possibly get. No harm, no foul.

guidelines170530Then the Guidelines became advisory. Yet in the 12 years since Booker, no court has bothered to change the “no prejudice” rule. Thus, when Tony Doyle appealed the fact the district court forgot to give him his right of allocution, the government argued that because Tony had gotten sentenced at the bottom of his Guideline range, the denial of the right to allocate did not hurt him.

Last week, the 11th Circuit said it was time to pitch the old Guidelines “no prejudice” presumption. Pointing out that Booker brought a “sea change” in sentencing practices, the Circuit said “a sentence outside the guidelines range is not the extraordinary event that it once was.” In fact, during 2016 almost half of the sentences handed out in the 11th Circuit were below the Guidelines range.

“Because Booker knocked out” the premise that the bottom of the Guidelines range was as good as it was going to get for the defendant, the Circuit said, “a defendant will generally be entitled to a presumption that he was prejudiced by the district court’s failure to afford him his right of allocution, which will satisfy the plain error rule’s third requirement, even if he received a sentence at the low end of his advisory guidelines range.”

United States v. Doyle, Case No. 14-12818 (May 25, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


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