United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 91-1306. Argued December 9, 1992—Decided April 26, 1993

Two of the fourteen jurors selected to hear evidence in respondents' criminal trial were identified as alternates before jury deliberations began. The District Court, without objection from respondents, permitted the alternates to attend the deliberations, instructing them that they should not participate, and respondents were convicted on a number of charges. The Court of Appeals vacated respondents' convictions. It concluded, inter alia, that the alternates' presence during deliberations violated Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 24(c), which requires that alternate jurors be discharged after the jury retires to consider its verdict. The court found that the alternates' presence in violation of Rule 24(c) was inherently prejudicial and reversible per se under the "plain error" standard of Rule 52(b).

Held: The presence of the alternate jurors during jury deliberations was not an error that the Court of Appeals was authorized to correct under Rule 52(b). Pp. 731-741. (a) A court of appeals has discretion under Rule 52(b) to correct "plain errors or defects affecting substantial rights" that were forfeited because not timely raised in the district court, which it should exercise only if the errors "seriously affect the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings," United States v. Atkinson, 297 U. S. 157, 160. There are three limitations on appellate authority under Rule 52(b). First, there must be an "error." A deviation from a legal rule during the district court proceedings is an error unless the defendant has waived the rule. Mere forfeiture does not extinguish an error. Second, the error must be "plain," a term synonymous with "clear" or, equivalently, "obvious." Third, the plain error must "affec[t] substantial rights," which normally means that the error must be prejudicial, affecting the outcome of the district court proceedings. Normally a court of appeals engages in a specific analysis of the district court's record to determine prejudice, and the defendant bears the burden of persuasion. This Court need not decide whether the phrase "affecting substantial rights" is always synonymous with "prejudicial" or whether there are errors that should be presumed prejudicial. Pp. 731-735. (b) The language of Rule 52(b), the nature of forfeiture, and the established appellate practice that Congress intended to continue, all point to


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