Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Plain Error Definition:

Limited grounds upon which an appeal alleging deficient jury instructions will be allowed, which were not objected to at the time they were presented to the jury: the error must be so obvious or serious that the public reputation and integrity of the judicial proceeding is impaired.

A doctrine of American criminal law.

Also known as the plain error doctrine.

In Serio-US v Plastic Recovery, Justice Randall Rader of the United States Court of Appeals wrote:

"Serio-US did not object to the jury instructions as required ... As a result, it may only appeal plain error, if any.... Therefore the only way the (Court) permits the appeal of a trial judge's error in jury instructions without an objection lodged at trial is when the record shows plain error resulting in a miscarriage of justice.

"Plain error occurs when the error is so obvious or so serious that the public reputation and integrity of the judicial proceeding is impaired."

Two years later, in US v Miranda-Lopez, Justice Barry Silverman of the same court wrote:

"Miranda-Lopez did not challenge this jury instruction at the time of trial .... Thus, we review the district court's jury instructions for plain error. Plain error requires an (1) error, (2) that is plain, and (3) that affects substantial rights. If these three conditions are met, we may exercise our discretion to notice the error but only if it (4) seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings."

At the state level, Justice Neville of the Appellate Court of Illinois used these words in People v Pryor:

"Defendant next contends that since he took only one car, one time, one of his two convictions was improper. He asks this court to vacate his conviction for vehicular hijacking and, based thereon, to issue a corrected mittimus. The State initially responds that defendant waived review of multiple convictions arising from a single act because he failed to raise it in the trial court. Defendant states that trial counsel's failure to raise this issue below affects defendant's substantial rights and, therefore, constitutes plain error.

"The plain error doctrine allows a reviewing court to consider a trial error which has been defaulted because it was not properly preserved under two limited circumstances: (1) where the evidence in a criminal case is closely balanced, or (2) where the error is so fundamental and of such magnitude that the accused was denied a right to a fair trial."


  • People v. Pryor, 865 NE 2d 279 (2007)
  • Serio-US Industries, Inc. v. Plastic Recovery Technologies Corp., 459 F.3d 1311 (2006)
  • US v. Miranda-Lopez, 532 F. 3d 1034 (2008). Virtually identical words were used in US v Cook, 550 F. 3d 1292 (2008, United States Court of Appeals).

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