In Greenlaw v. United States, the Supreme Court considered whether a United States Court of Appeals acting on its own initiative and without an appeal or cross-appeal from the government, may order an increase in a criminal defendant’s sentence. Greenlaw was convicted of various drugs and weapons offenses and sentenced to 442 months confinement. He appealed his sentence. After rejecting all of Greenlaw’s issues, the Court of Appeals determined that the law required the present sentence to be 15 years longer than the term imposed by the trial court. The Supreme Court reversed.
In making its ruling, the Court of Appeals claimed that Rule 52(b) of the Rules of Criminal Procedure gave it authority to alter the sentence. This rule provides that a plain error that effects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the Court’s attention. The Supreme Court held that nothing in the text of the rules suggested that the drafters meant to override the cross-appeal requirement. The Court further noted that case law using the plain-error doctrine has only invoked the doctrine to the benefit of the defendant who had petitioned the Court for review on other grounds.