Monday, March 7th, 2005

District Court Retains Inherent Authority to Interpret Ambiguities in Its Own Orders, Regardless of Rule 35 / 36 Constraints

United States v. Silvio Spallone, Docket No. 03-1791 (2d Cir. March 4, 2005) (Sack, Raggi, and Hall) (Op. by Raggi): In this case, the Second Circuit clarifies that a district court retains the power to interpret ambiguities in its own sentencing orders, even outside the temporal and other limits set for correction of sentences found in Rules 35 & 36 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Here, the defendant pled guilty to tax evasion and was originally sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment, 3 years’ supervised release, and $2.45 million in restitution. Following a Rule 35(b) motion by the Government (in exchange for the defendant’s cooperation while in prison), the district court entered an order stating that “the defendant [] be sentenced to time served.” The defendant was promptly released.

After his release, the defendant claimed that neither the supervised release nor the restitution portions of his sentence were still in effect as a result of the “time served” order. Nearly a year and a half after the original order was entered, the district court entered another order clarifying that the earlier order merely shortened the term of imprisonment and did not abrogate any other aspect of the original sentence.

The Circuit affirmed this new order on appeal, finding that it correctly interpreted the earlier order in light of all the surrounding circumstances. And although the new order was not authorized by either Rule 35 or Rule 36, the Circuit held that a district court retained the inherent authority to interpret an ambiguous order at a later time.

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