June 14, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Dolan v. United States

On June 14, 2010, the Supreme Court decided Dolan v. United States, No. 09-367, holding that, at least in some circumstances, a federal court may order restitution of a crime victim's loss as part of a defendant's sentence, even if the amount of restitution is not determined until after the 90-day-post-sentencing deadline set by federal statute.

Brian Dolan pleaded guilty to assault resulting in serious bodily injury pursuant to a plea agreement providing that his sentence could require restitution of his victim's losses. The district court stated at the sentencing hearing that restitution would be ordered but, noting that the amount of the victim's losses remained uncertain, it left that aspect of the sentence open. The Mandatory Victims Restitution Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5), requires a court in such a situation hold a hearing for the final determination of the victim's losses not later than 90 days after sentencing. In this case, however, the hearing was not held for more than 180 days, at which time Dolan claimed the court's authority to order restitution in a particular amount had expired. The district court disagreed and ordered restitution. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court affirmed. It explained that the consequences of missing a statutory deadline where the statute is silent on the subject depends on the statutory language and the relevant context and what they reveal about the purpose of the deadline. Some deadlines are "jurisdictional," so that their expiration deprives a court of the authority to take the action to which the deadline attaches. Others are "claims-processing rules" that regulate the timing of motions or claims brought before the court; these deadlines are waived unless the opposing party brings them to the court's attention. Still others simply seek speedy disposition of matters by "creating a time-related directive that is legally enforceable but does not deprive a judge . . . of the power to take the action" if the deadline is missed.

The Court held that the 90-day deadline here is of the third variety, basing its conclusion on a number of factors. Courts ordinarily will not "impose their own coercive sanction" when a statute setting a deadline does not specify a consequence for noncompliance. Here, the statute particularly emphasizes the importance of restitution as part of the sentence for specified crimes. Its primary goal in seeking a speedy determination is helping crime victims obtain that restitution, not making sure that defendants know the amount of their obligation promptly. Reading the statute as depriving courts of the power to order restitution after the deadline would penalize the victims, who are unlikely to bear any responsibility for the delay. Similar statutory deadlines, such as the deadline for determining bail, have also been interpreted as not preventing a judicial officer from taking the relevant action if the deadline is missed. Finally, a defendant usually can mitigate any harm that he or she might suffer because of the delay by calling the court's attention to the approaching deadline and requesting a timely hearing.

Without specifically deciding the question, the Court expressed strong skepticism about the dissent's suggestion that convictions in which the amount of restitution had not yet been determined are not final, so that they can't be appealed until the amount of restitution is set. It observed that other provisions of sentences—the amount of a fine, for example—are sometimes left open pending the court's receipt of more complete information, and it suggested that an immediate appeal could nevertheless be taken in such circumstances.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, and Sotomayor joined. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stevens, Scalia, and Kennedy joined.

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