Friday, May 13th, 2011

Beating Disorder

United States v. Wells, No. 10-1266-cr (2d Cir. April 28, 2011) (Kearse, Sack, Katzmann, CJJ)

The defendants here, Wells and Rhodes, both former prison guards, were convicted of covering up the beating of a prisoner at the Queen Private Correctional Facility (“QPCF”). The episode began when the prisoner commented on the appearance of a female guard in Wells’ presence. Wells beat the prisoner, and the beating was witnessed by Rhodes and three other guards. The QPCF immediately began an internal investigation, and the witnesses, at Wells’ urging, filed false reports. Later, Wells and Rhodes were interviewed by an agent of the Office of the Inspector General and lied to her about what happened.

After a jury trial, Wells was convicted of five offenses relating to obstruction of justice, witness tampering and the making of a false statement. Rhodes was convicted of obstruction of justice and making a false statement.

On appeal, they challenged their convictions for obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which requires proof of conduct “intended to obstruct the investigation or proper administration of a matter within the jurisdiction of a federal agency.” The circuit affirmed.

The defendants first claimed that the government failed to prove a sufficient “nexus” between their conduct and an official proceeding, as required under some obstruction statutes. But § 1519 makes clear that no such nexus need be proven. All the statute requires is proof of an “intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States.”

The court also rejected the argument that the statute did not apply because the defendants were employed by the private company that operated the QPCF. The QPCF was under contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, an agency within the Department of Justice, to house federal prisoners. And the DOJ has jurisdiction and authority to investigate allegations against correction officers at both publicly and privately run prisons.

Finally, the court rejected the claim that there was no evidence that the defendants knew that their statements would be submitted to the DOJ. Knowledge of a pending federal investigation or proceeding is not an element of the offense.

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