United States Supreme Court Rules that Federal Court of Appeals Cannot Increase Sentence on its own Initiative

June 23, 2008 by Carl Lietz

In a federal criminal case involving a sentencing issue, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a federal appellate court cannot increase a defendant's sentence in the absence of a Government request to do so. In Greenlaw v. United States, the defendant was convicted of various drug and firearms offenses. At his sentencing hearing, the district court sentenced Greenlaw to a term of imprisonment of 442 months. This sentence, however, was in direct contravention of Supreme Court law (and 15 years too low), because the district court failed to impose a 25 year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment on Greenlaw's second and subsequent conviction for a 924(c) offense.

Importantly, although the United States objected to the imposition of this sentence in the lower court, it failed to raise this issue in the court of appeals. On its own initiative, however, the court of appeals addressed this issue. According to the court of appeals, since Greenlaw's sentence directly conflicted with Supreme Court law, the court ordered the district court to enlarge Greenlaw's sentence by 15 years, yielding a total prison term of 662 months.

Earlier today, the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the ruling of the court of appeals. According to the Supreme Court, absent a Government appeal or cross-appeal, a federal court of appeals cannot, on its own initiative, order an increase in an individual's sentence.