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Downward departure sentences for corrections officers found unreasonably low

The defendant in U.S. v. McQueen was a corrections officer at the South Florida Reception Center in Doral, Florida who was convicted of conspiracy to deprive several inmates of their constitutional rights in violation of 18 U.S.C. §241, specifically their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. McQueen and another corrections officer, Dawkins, were also convicted of obstruction of justice, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1519. In a cross appeal, the government challenged the McQueen’s 12 month sentence and Dawkins’ one month sentence.

Defendant McQueen was sergeant and Dawkins was an officer at the jail on February 25, 2009 when a fight broke out between two inmates who were housed in the youthful offender wing of the prison. When McQueen and other corrections officers asked the injured inmate who he fought with, the inmate refused to reveal the other inmate’s name. McQueen then beat the inmate with a broomstick and slammed his head, and by doing so aggravated his wounds. Other inmates were beaten by the officers for not talking, and they forced two inmates to fight with each other. In all, about five inmates were injured from the repeated acts of violence caused by these defendants and other officers. In reporting making his report, McQueen reported that the inmate injured himself while cleaning the shower. Both defendant McQueen and Dawkins were found guilty following trial. Factoring the offense characteristic enhancements, McQueen’s offense level was 34, giving him a range of 151 to 188 months in prison. Dawkins’ range was 15 to 21 months. A third defendant, who was allowed to plead to a misdemeanor, received a 12 month sentence for his conviction. In sentencing McQueen and Dawkins, the trial court found that it could not in good conscience sentence McQueen and Dawkins to far heavier sentences and the court sentenced McQueen to 12 months and sentenced Dawkins to one month imprisonment.

The court of appeals found the district court abused its discretion in imposing substantially unreasonable sentences that varied downward by more than 90% from the bottom of the sentencing guideline range. The district court emphasized only one sentencing factor under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) in comparing the codefendant’s sentence. In reviewing the sentence, the court of appeals is not limited to the §3553(a) factors examined by the district court, and the court can find that a sentence may be unreasonable when the sentence is grounded solely only one factor and ignores other relevant factors. The court found the sentencing court “completely failed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense.” The court of appeals determined that the conduct of these corrections officers were particularly egregious, especially McQueen who was the sergeant in charge of the youthful offender wing of the prison. The court reviewed in detail the specific acts of violence he carried out and pointed out the statute’s intent was to protect citizens from the abuse of power by those who infringe on rights secured by the Constitution. The sentence also failed to adequately deter criminal conduct, which in this case involves the violent abuse by corrections officers against inmates which may easily go undetected or unpunished.

Defendants’ issues rejected
The court of appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that §1519 requires the government to prove that the defendant falsified a document with intent to impede or obstruct a federal investigation. The court held there was nothing in the language of the statute that says the defendant must know the investigation is federal in nature. The court of appeals also rejected his argument that the prosecutor improperly bolstered a government witness when the government witness was asked if she told the truth because she would have flunked a polygraph because the witness never took a polygraph.