Sixth Circuit Vacates Sentencing Enhancement Based On Defendant False Identification

Sixth Circuit Vacates Sentencing Enhancement Based On Defendant False Identification



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This recent Sixth Circuit case has it roots in a 1999 conviction of Kwame Williams, a Trinidadian who was arrested in New York on a gun charge and deported. Williams eventually reentered the country illegally and, in 2002, was arrested for kidnapping, robbery and assault but failed to appear for any court proceedings.

At that point, Williams moved to Nashville and changed his name to Arnold Fordham. The DEA began investigating Williams for distributing oxycodone, but believed he was Fordham. Eventually they searched Williams’ house and found 1,000 oxycodone pills along with other illegal drugs. Williams told the agents that his name was Fordham and admitted to dealing drugs and to possessing a weapon.

It took two moths after his initial court appearance for Williams to reveal his real name. At that point he pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute oxycodone and prosecutors argued that he should be sentenced with a two-level enhancement for obstructing justice by lying about his identity. The court applied the sentencing enhancement and ordered Williams to 87 months in prison.

The Sixth Circuit heard the case and pointed out that the law says that a defendant’s offense level must be increased by two points if the defendant “willfully obstructed or impeded… the administration of justice with respect to the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction.” An example contained in the rule included providing materially false information to a judge, the basis used to enhance the sentence in this case.

The lower court argued that a defendant’s identity is always material to a criminal proceeding and thus an enhancement was appropriate. The Sixth Circuit had to decide whether it was actually material to any of the issues decided by the judge. There were two issues decided on by the judge: whether to appoint counsel for Williams based on his financial affidavit and whether to decide the DEA agents had probable cause to arrest Williams for possessing oxycodone.

The Sixth Circuit said that with regard to the first issue, the government never proved that any of Williams’ financial information was false and that for all purposes, Fordham was just as indigent as Williams. The lie about identity cannot then be shown to have affected the judge’s decision with regard to appointing counsel for Williams. The same thing with regard to the second issue which was based on testimony by DEA agents and had nothing to do with Williams’ identification as Fordham.

As result, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s sentencing enhancement, vacated Williams’ sentence and remanded the case for resentencing.

To read the full opinion, click here.

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