Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Failure to Impose Fine Not Clear Error

US v. Fields: In 2006, Fields was initially sentenced to a term of 12 months in prison (following a conviction for making a false loan application) and a $2000 fine, in spite of the district court concluding that Fields did not have the ability to pay a fine. He appealed and the Fourth Circuit vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing.

At resentencing, the district court imposed the same 12-month sentence and made the same finding about Fields's ability to pay a fine. However, the district court did not reimpose the $2000 fine. Four days later, the district court sua sponte convened a new sentencing hearing and imposed a $2000 fine. Over Fields's objection, the district court explained that it knew "exactly what [it] had in mind" and that it "intended to impose a fine" at resentencing. The district court cited Rule 35(a) of the Rules of Criminal Procedure as the basis for fixing its "clear error."

Fields appealed the imposition of the fine. The Fourth Circuit vacated the sentence and remanded with specific instructions to impose the first sentence imposed at resentencing - without the fine. The court explained that the "clear error" conceived by Rule 35(a) is a narrow class and, at the least, requires some act that would be reversible error on appeal. No such error occurred at the resentencing hearing when the district court failed to impose a fine. However, the court recognized that had the district court made clear its intent to impose the fine at the resentencing hearing, the failure to do so might have fallen into the Rule 35(a) exception.

Congrats to the FPD office in South Carolina on the win!

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