Published on:

Ms. Tapia Wins! Again!

For a person convicted of a crime, winning in the Supreme Court of the United States can be a mixed bag.

Sometimes it works out well. Clarence Gideon was acquitted when he was retried, this time with the aid of a defense lawyer. He was also, of course, lovingly portrayed by Henry Fonda in film, and is now perhaps the most often-invoked indigent of the Twentieth Century.

657704_supreme_court.jpgOn the other hand, Ernesto Miranda, the man who gave us Miranda warnings, was convicted on retrial after his statement was suppressed. He served 11 years in prison for rape.

Freddie Booker’s case turned federal criminal sentencing on its head. Mr. Booker was resentenced after his case rendered the federal sentencing guidelines advisory – he was given exactly the same sentence with the advisory guidelines as with the mandatory ones.

Perhaps that was a harbinger.

Alejandra Tapia won her case in the United States Supreme Court last term. And, happily, yesterday, she found that she’ll get some relief from that win.

She was convicted at trial of bringing two undocumented people into the country for financial gain, and of bail jumping – apparently Ms. Tapia did not make it to court for one of the hearings in her case.

She was sentenced to 51 months, the high-end of the applicable guidelines range. The sentencing court said that she had a drug problem and needed treatment while in prison. The sentence he imposed was to help her get that treatment.

Ms. Tapia appealed the sentencing judge’s reliance on her need for drug treatment, but the Ninth Circuit affirmed. Ms. Tapia took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In the Supreme Court, she won.

There, in Tapia v. United States, the Court held that a district judge cannot increase a sentence on a person in order to provide more time in prison to rehabilitate the person.

(Judge Posner has already provided district court judges with a roadmap for how to circumvent Tapia.)

The Supreme Court remanded to the Ninth Circuit to determine whether Ms. Tapia is entitled to relief based on its holding.

On remand from the Supreme Court Ninth Circuit held that Ms. Tapia is entitled to resentencing in United States v Tapia. The district court’s consideration of her drug history and need for drug treatment was plain error.

As the Ninth Circuit said, in determining that Ms. Tapia was negatively effected by the sentencing judge’s findings:

There is little reason to think that the district judge did not mean what he said in sentencing Tapia. He stated that “the need to provide treatment” was one of the considerations that “affect[ed]” the length of the sentence he imposed. We take him at his word, and hold that Tapia has shown that there is a “reasonable probability that [she] would have received a different sentence” but for the district judge’s impermissible consideration of this factor.

So, back to the district court for resentencing for Ms. Tapia. Here’s to hoping she avoids Mr. Miranda and Mr. Booker’s fates and receives less than her prior 51 months.