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Sentence enhancements upheld for doctoring records after VA patient’s death

In this appeal Mathews Martinez appeals his 60 month sentence for his conviction for intentionally causing damage to a protected computer of the Department of Veterans Affairs and resulted in the modification and impairment of the medical care of an individual and for knowing altering ad making a false entry in date stored within the Department’s computer system with the intent to impede obstruct and influence the investigation and proper administration of a matter within the Department’s jurisdiction. Mathews was a nurse in the surgical intensive care unit of the VA hospital who did not record the changes in the patient’s vital signs during his stay in intensive care following heart surgery. Later the patient died of heart failure. When Matthews returned to work, he was confronted about the patient’s care. Knowing there would be an investigation, he went back into the patient’s records and entered numbers and notations.

Mathews challenged his enhanced sentence the court found that he did alter a substantial number of records and he altered essential and probative records. The court also enhanced his sentence because his victim was vulnerable and Mathews was in charge of the patient’s care. The court also determined that he tested positive for cocaine while on bond and found that it lacked any authority to grant him acceptance of responsibility reduction in his guidelines. The court ultimately found the guidelines range was insufficient and varied upward to a 60 month sentence.

In his challenge Martinez claimed the Miami federal judge committed error by applying the federal criminal sentencing guidelines enhancement for altering a substantial number of records or for altering essential records; for the vulnerable victim increase, and for denying him the acceptance of responsibility reduction.   The court declined to find whether the data entries were a substantial number of records because there was ample evidence that Mathews selected an essential or especially probative document to alter. The patient’s charts would be subject to investigation into the quality of the patient’s care. The patient’s medical chart from the day of his death would have been a key piece of evidence in this investigation. Mathews falsified what was going to be an essential and especially probative document in the investigation of that patient’s death.

The court also rejected Mathew’s claim that his sentence should not have been enhanced for a vulnerable victim. The district court did not commit error where the patient was 76 years old and recovering from heart surgery in an intensive care unit. The guideline enhancement does not require that the defendant target the victim. The enhancement applies so long as the defendant knew or should have known that victim of the offense was a vulnerable victim.

As for the denial of the reduction for acceptance of responsibility, the court of appeals found that the district court erroneously believed that a failed drug test meant that as a matter of law Mathews loses his acceptance of responsibility and that is did not have the authority to grant the requested adjustment. The court found the error was not harmless because the district court did not state that he would have imposed the same 60 month sentence absent any error in the guidelines calculation. The court vacated and remanded for the limited purpose of allowing the district court to determine whether a reduction for acceptance of responsibility is warranted or not under the factual circumstance here.