Friday, December 01, 2006

Obstruction Enhancement Erroneously Applied; Defendant's Conduct Not Within Plain Meaning of U.S.S.G. §3C1.1

United States v. Brown, No. 05-50899 (5th Cir. Nov. 21, 2006) (Barksdale, Benavides, Owen)

Here's the court's concise recitation of the facts:

On 2 October 2003, Deputies from the Hill County Sheriff’s Department responded to a domestic-disturbance call in Brandon, Texas, from Brown’s girlfriend. She claimed Brown had threatened her on numerous occasions, telling her at one point he would kill her. The Deputies escorted her to Brown’s residence (mobile home) to retrieve her belongings. In route to Brown’s residence, the Deputies learned Brown had an outstanding arrest warrant.

When the Deputies arrived at the mobile home, they informed Brown they had a warrant for his arrest. As a Deputy began to detain him, Brown broke free from the Deputy’s grasp and ran into a heavily wooded area. The Deputies pursued Brown but soon lost sight of him. On returning to Brown’s residence, the Deputies found a loaded .22 caliber rifle with the initials “RB” carved in the stock.

Brown remained a fugitive and was placed on the United States Marshal’s most-wanted list in February 2004. That June, he was apprehended in Laredo, Texas, over 200 miles from Brandon.

That December, a federal grand jury indicted Brown for being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). In April 2005, Brown was convicted of that charge.

Slip op. at 1-2. The PSR recommended a §3C1.1 obstruction enhancement on the ground that Brown "'escaped from the custody of the officers as they attempted to arrest him October 2, 2003.'" Slip op. at 2. Brown objected, but the district court overruled the objection without explanation or findings and imposed a sentence within the resulting range.

Brown appealed the application of the obstruction enhancement. The court of appeals agreed that the district court had erroneously applied the enhancement, for two reasons.

First, the obstruction guideline only reaches conduct that happens during the "investigation, prosecution or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction . . . ." However, "Brown ran from the Deputies before he was being investigated for the instant offense of illegally possessing a firearm." Slip op. at 5. (And he wasn't indicted for the offense until over a year later.)

Second, the commentary to §3C1.1 draws a distinction between fleeing from arrest (ordinarily not obstruction) and fleeing from custody (possibly obstruction). "Because Brown was never in custody and the Deputies never exercised a degree of formal control or restraint over him, his flight did not constitute obstruction of justice within the meaning of the Guideline." Slip op. at 7.

Because Brown's conduct didn't fit within the plain language of the guideline, the court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing.


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