Eleventh Circuit Vacates Unreasonably Short Sentences for Jailers Convicted of Violence – U.S. v. McQueen

August 26, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

As a criminal defense lawyer, I am not often in agreement with appeals courts that send back cases for imposition of a harsher sentence. But in U.S. v. McQueen, the defendants were two former South Florida jailers accused of cruelty to prisoners who were in juvenile detention. Alexander McQueen and Steven Dawkins were both convicted of federal crimes including obstruction of justice, for writing up reports that omitted corrections officers’ violence against inmates and roles in inmate injuries. McQueen was also convicted of conspiring to deprive inmates of their right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. McQueen got 12 months in prison; Dawkins got a month in jail. Both officers appealed their underlying convictions, arguing there was insufficient evidence as well as legal error in trial court. The government cross-appealed the sentences as unreasonable. The Eleventh Circuit sided with the prosecution, vacating the sentences and remanding for new ones.

Dawkins and McQueen are two of four officers who worked at the South Florida Reception Center. After a fight between two inmates in the youthful offender wing of the prison (meaning prisoners 21 and under), officer Guruba Griffin found one inmate, Woods, dazed from a head injury and ordered all the inmates into the day room, then brought Dawkins and McQueen into the room. When no one tattled, Griffin broke a broomstick in half and beat Woods with it some more, then hit an apparently random prisoner who said he didn’t see the fight. Griffin then set up a boxing match between two other prisoners, and he and McQueen occasionally stepped in to beat these two with the broomstick for failure to adhere to boxing rules, or in one case for begging for an end to the fight. Griffin choked one unconscious. The next day, Griffin and McQueen beat three other prisoners with the broomsticks for arbitrary reasons. Dawkins and another guard, Scott Butler, watched and did nothing. McQueen and Dawkins both filed false reports related to this violence.

A South Florida jury ultimately found Dawkins and McQueen guilty of filing false reports in order to obstruct justice, and McQueen guilty of conspiring to violate prisoners’ civil rights. The recommended Guidelines sentence for Dawkins was 15 to 21 months in prison; for McQueen, it was 151 to 188, in part because there were multiple enhancements. But Griffin plea bargained for up to a year in prison, and the district court, troubled by this disparity, departed downward to one year for McQueen and one month for Dawkins.

The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals started by considering and rejecting the defendants’ arguments against their convictions. Obstruction of justice does not require intent to impede a federal investigation, the court said. Nor does the conspiracy charge require evidence of a formal agreement. The evidence doesn’t support the defendants’ preferred jury instructions, the Eleventh said, and the prosecution didn’t improperly bolster a witness’s testimony. However, the appeals court did agree that both defendants’ sentences were substantively unreasonable in their shortness. Though district courts have considerable discretion, the court said, these sentences don’t achieve the goals of sentencing, including reflecting the seriousness of the offense, promoting respect for the law and deterring criminal conduct. They’re also well below the Sentencing Guidelines, the Eleventh said, creating a disparity even with others who won a downward departure. It remanded for resentencing.

I’m pleased that the Eleventh Circuit sent these cases back for new sentences. As the court pointed out, these defendants were convicted of serious, flagrant abuses of power, against prisoners still considered juveniles. As well as hurting individuals, this behavior created a well-founded fear of reprisal that made it harder for the officers to be caught. For these reasons, their crimes are arguably more serious than a garden-variety aggravated battery, which in Florida can get up to 15 years in prison. These cases are also an excellent reminder of how important it is to protect your freedom if you’re accused of a serious crime. Not everyone in the penal system is honest, and going to prison can put you under the power of an unsavory person. That’s why I work hard to get my clients the best possible deal, whether that means a plea agreement or a vigorous defense in court.

If you’re charged with serious crimes in Florida, you need an experienced advocate by your side. For a free consultation, you can call Seltzer Law, P.A., 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Call us at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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