Greenlaw v. United States

Greenlaw was convicted on drug and firearms charges and sentenced to 442 months’ imprisonment. Greenlaw appealed his sentence. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Greenlaw’s sentence and remanded to the district court for resentencing. Instead of reducing Greenlaw's sentence as Greenlaw requested, however, the Eighth Circuit required a greater sentence because it found that the district court committed a plain error and sentenced Greenlaw for a lower amount of time than the mandatory minimum required by statute (180 months lower). The government had objected to the error in sentencing but had not appealed the issue, and so the Eighth Circuit acted "sua sponte," or own its own motion, in correcting the error.

Question Presented:

In 1937, this Court described as “inveterate and certain,” the principle that an appellee “may not, in the absence of a cross-appeal ... ‘attack the decree with a view either to enlarging his own rights thereunder or lessening the rights of his adversary.” Morely Constr. Co. v. Maryland Cas. Co., 300 U.S. 185, 191 (1937) (citation omitted). In light of this principle, numerous courts have held that a court of appeals may not order an increase in a criminal defendant’s sentence in the absence of an appeal or cross-appeal by the Government. The Eighth and Tenth Circuits, however, have held that courts of appeals may sua sponte order increases in a defendant’s sentence when the district court has failed to impose a statutory mandatory minimum sentence, even if the Government has not appealed or cross-appealed the sentence. The question presented is:

Whether a federal court of appeals may increase a criminal defendant’s sentence sua sponte and in the absence of a cross-appeal by the Government.

Decision under Review

Supreme Court Opinion