Sixth Circuit Reverses Obstruction Enhancement

The District Court Judge did not sufficiently explain why the obstruction enhancement was warranted.

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The Sixth Circuit has ruled in Rosales that the district court erred in determining that an obstruction enhancement was appropriate when there was no finding of a material hinderance.

Rosales and His Underlying Conduct

Rosales had been communicating with others about the transportation of drugs. They communicated via phone. They all parked close together and Rosales picked up a large duffel bag and placed it in his car.

Then a group of armed officers surrounded Rosales. He threw his phone to the ground. The officers were unable to find the cell phone.

Rosales and His Obstruction of Justice Enhancement 

“At sentencing, over Rosales’ objection, the district court gave a two-point enhancement for obstruction of justice because Rosales had thrown his cellphone to the ground during his arrest. The court departed down from the Guidelines range and imposed a sentence of 240 months’ imprisonment for each count, to be served concurrently.”

On Direct Appeal, Rosales challenged his Obstruction of Justice enhancement:

“Under U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1, a two-level enhancement to the total offense level applies when the defendant has “willfully obstructed or impeded, or attempted to instruct or impede, the administration of justice with respect to the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction.” Where the evidence is destroyed contemporaneously with arrest, the enhancement does not apply unless it results in a “material hindrance” to the investigation or the sentencing of the defendant. Id. at cmt. n.4. The obstructing conduct relied upon by the district court was Rosales’ destruction of his cell phone, and neither party disputes that Rosales spiked the phone on the ground contemporaneously with his arrest. Thus, for the enhancement to apply the district court had to find both “willfulness” and “material hindrance.”

The court held that there was not enough information in order to uphold the conviction at this time:

“On the other hand, the district court did not make any factual findings as to the material hindrance of the investigation. Although the court noted that the phone would have reflected communication between Rosales and [the others], it did not discuss how not having the phone materially impeded the government’s investigation. The government asserts that the phone may have provided them with more information about the conspiracy and may have more concretely tied Rosales to [the others] and the conspiracy itself. This may be true, but without a specific factual finding from the district court that Rosales’ spiking of the phone materially hindered the investigation, the obstruction enhancement cannot be imposed…Without this finding on the record, we cannot be certain that the district court correctly applied the obstruction of justice enhancement.”

The Sixth Circuit remanded the case back down for resentencing.

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