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United States v. Dominguez Benitez

Case Name
United States v. Dominguez Benitez
542 U.S. 74
Unanimous Decision
Authoring Judge
David Souter
Judge(s) - Majority
William Rehnquist, Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer
Judge(s) - Concur
Antonin Scalia
U.S. Supreme Court
On Review From
9th Circuit
Decision Year
Sentencing Differential (Maximum Exposure)
10 year mandatory minimum with maximum of life
Sentencing Differential (Minimum Offered or Received)
Safety-valve sentence below the mandatory minimum
Sentencing Differential Size


In exchange for the government’s dismissal of a simple possession charge, defendant pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess controlled substances. Though such notice is required under Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(3), the judge failed to tell defendant during the hearing that he could not withdraw his plea if the court did not accept the government’s sentencing recommendations. After sentencing, defendant appealed to withdraw his guilty plea. Variances from the requirements of 11(c) are typically harmless error. However, because defendant failed to preserve the error by timely objection, the Court held that the plain-error standard applied. Defendant accordingly has the burden of proving that the judge’s omission prejudiced his rights—not the proceedings themselves—in its “substantial and injurious effect . . . in determining the . . . verdict.” The Court required a showing that, but for the error, defendant would not have entered the plea, and the result of the proceeding would have been different. Courts must look to the entire record to determine what the defendant understood.

Key Quote

“We think that burden [of establishing defendant’s entitlement to relief] should not be too easy for defendants in Dominguez’s position. First, the standard should . . . encourage timely objections and reduce wasteful reversals[.] . . . [I]t should respect the particular importance of the finality of guilty pleas[.] . . . [T]hese reasons are complemented by the fact, worth repeating, that the violation claimed was of Rule 11, not of due process.” p.82-83