Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, October 30, 2017

Mathews: Failed Drug Test Does not Categorically Preclude Reduction for Acceptance of Responsibility

In United States v. Mathews, No. 16-11191 (Oct. 30, 2017) (Hull, Jordan, Gilman), the Court considered three Guideline calculation issues, and it ruled in the defendant's favor on one.

First, the Court upheld the application of the enhancement in 2J1.2(b)(3) for altering a substantial number of records, or, alternatively, altering essential or especially probative records.  The Court upheld the increase under the latter option, because the defendant altered a medical patient's records from the day of his death, which was essential to and obstructed the VA's investigation.  The Court found irrelevant  the defendant's subjective intent as to why he altered the records; it mattered only that he selected those records to destroy or alter.

Second, the Court upheld the application of the vulnerable-victim enhancement in 3A1.1(b)(1).  The victim was 76 years old and recovering from heart surgery, and it was irrelevant whether the defendant "targeted" the patient based on those infirmities; it required only that the defendant knew or should have known that the victim was vulnerable.  The Court further rejected the defendant's argument that the only victim harmed by his computer and record-related convictions was the United States, not the patient.  It emphasized that a person can qualify as a victim even if the defendant's conduct exposes that person to a risk of harm that was reasonable foreseeable.  The defendant's conduct met that standard and qualified as relevant conduct.

Third, the Court found that the district court erred by believing that a failed drug test precluded a reduction for acceptance of responsibility as a matter of law.   The Court noted that the Guidelines did not include any conduct that categorically precludes a defendant from receiving a reduction.  The Court could not find the error harmless because it reduced the defendant's guideline range.  Accordingly, it vacated the sentence and remanded for the limited purpose of allowing the court to determine whether a reduction was warranted.