The Rodriguez appeals involves a challenge to the 50-month sentence the district court imposed for Rodriguez’s guilty plea conviction for possession with the intent to distribute heroin and methamphetamine, a violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841. At hand in this appeal were four questions, but only two of which were worth note: (1) should Rodriguez get a new sentencing hearing due to technical difficulties everyone experienced while doing the sentencing over videoconferencing, and (2) did the district court err in failing to impose its conditions of supervised release in open court?
With respect to the videoconferencing issue, the Court observed that while a defendant has a right to have counsel present during all critical stages of his trial (such as during a sentencing hearing) and an attorney’s absence can be grounds for a structural error requiring new proceedings without a showing of prejudice, the Court also observed that in prior cases it will require a showing of prejudice for brief absences. For example, in United States v. Roy, 855 F.3d 1133, 1167 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc), the Court rejected a claim that a defendant was entitled to a new trial based on counsel’s 7-minute absence from the trial when everything was repeated for counsel once counsel returned to the proceedings. Here, the Court concluded that Rodriguez didn’t make a timely objection to this issue during the sentencing hearing and thus was going to review the issue under a plain error standard of review. Basically, every time the video feed had problems during the hearing, defense counsel didn’t object to the entire proceedings and instead just asked for clarification. The Court was satisfied that the district court didn’t base its sentencing decision on any information gleaned from the time that the feed appeared to be glitching, and, as such, there was no plain error.
Second, the Court decided that the district court improperly imposed conditions of supervised release on Rodriguez after the hearing by written order instead of in open court. Generally, a court can only pronounce sentence on a defendant in the defendant’s presence in open court. The Court decided to extend those constitutional protections to a defendant and the imposition of discretionary terms of supervised release in a case. Here, while the district court imposed a 5-year term of supervised release on Rodriguez, it didn’t say what conditions would apply, but, instead, issued a written order explaining those conditions after sentencing had concluded. Accordingly, the Court remanded the matter back to the district court to conduct a hearing limited to the imposition of the supervised release conditions that it would impose.