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United States v. Douglas

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

March 15, 2018


          Argued March 23, 2016 [*]


          Arnold P. Bernard, Jr., Esq. [ARGUED] Counsel for Appellant

          Michael L. Ivory, Esq. [ARGUED] Rebecca R. Haywood, Esq. Office of United States Attorney Counsel for Appellee

          Before: GREENAWAY, JR., VANASKIE, and SHWARTZ, Circuit Judges.


          SHWARTZ, Circuit Judge.

         Kenneth Douglas appeals his sentence, arguing that the District Court incorrectly held him responsible for trafficking more than 450 kilograms of cocaine, erroneously applied sentencing enhancements for abuse of a position of trust under U.S.S.G. § 3B1.3 and obstruction of justice under U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1, and failed to appropriately consider the disparity between his sentence and those imposed on his co-conspirators. For the reasons discussed below, we will affirm the sentence with respect to the drug calculation and reverse the obstruction of justice enhancement.[1]


         Douglas participated in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine. The conspiracy began years before he joined it, when Tywan Staples, who lived in the San Francisco area, began supplying marijuana to his cousin Robert Russell Spence in Pittsburgh. Staples and Spence went from selling small amounts of marijuana to shipping four to six kilograms of cocaine across the country several times a month. After law enforcement intercepted several packages containing money and drugs, the conspirators began using couriers to carry drugs and money on commercial flights. By 2008, six different couriers were transporting cocaine out of the Oakland, California airport. After two of the couriers were arrested, the conspirators began using San Francisco International Airport ("SFIA") instead.

         Staples, who worked at the "maintenance base" at SFIA, knew Douglas, who was an airline mechanic for United Airlines. Douglas had an Airport Operation Authority ("AOA") badge that enabled him to enter the airport terminal without being screened at a Transportation Security Administration ("TSA") checkpoint.[2] Unlike Douglas, Staples did not have the ability to enter the terminal without inspection. For that reason, when Douglas asked Staples if he had "any way [Douglas] could make some extra money, " Staples invited him to join the conspiracy. Douglas accepted.

         Staples and Douglas facilitated the movement of cocaine in a simple way. Staples would deliver the cocaine to Douglas packed in a bag with clothing. Douglas would then smuggle the bag into the terminal and either transfer it to a courier once inside the secured area of the terminal, or board the plane as a passenger with the drugs.

         Staples testified that Douglas assisted with the movement of the cocaine "40 to 50 times, " transporting ten to thirteen kilograms of cocaine on each occasion. App. 102. Douglas transported drugs himself on seventeen occasions. Unlike the couriers, he was not required to bring cash back to California, so as to avoid any risk of being caught, which would, in turn, shut down the conspiracy's San Francisco distribution activities. Staples testified that Douglas was paid $5, 000 each time that he smuggled cocaine into the airport, and another $5, 000 each time he delivered a shipment himself.

         Using airline records, the Government identified forty-six specific flights departing from SFIA between January and November of 2009 that were associated with the conspiracy, including seventeen flights on which Douglas personally transported drugs, sometimes using his employee benefit tickets. These flights included very short round trips that were inconsistent with personal travel, and corresponded to phone calls among the conspirators, the use of pre-paid credit cards, and the timing of deposits into Douglas's bank account.

         Following an investigation, a grand jury returned an indictment against Douglas and twenty-one co-defendants. Douglas was charged with conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h). Douglas was arrested and released on bail, subject to several conditions, including travel restrictions and a requirement that he appear for court proceedings. While Douglas was on bail, the Probation Office discovered that he had booked a flight to Jamaica without permission. At his bail revocation hearing, Douglas claimed he had mistakenly booked a flight for himself while booking a flight for his wife. The District Court did not revoke his bail, but modified his conditions of release to require him to call probation daily to verify his whereabouts.

         Douglas's trial was scheduled to begin on January 8, 2014. He failed to appear for the first day of trial. The next day, he filed a motion for a continuance claiming that he "was receiving medical attention on January 8, 2014 and was unable [to be] in court for that reason." Supp. App. 47. In connection with the motion, Douglas submitted documents showing that he was admitted to the emergency room around 2:00 a.m. on January 8, complaining of chest pain. The records show that he was treated with aspirin and intravenous insulin, transported via ambulance to an urgent care facility, and had a series of tests in both medical facilities. Douglas's EKG revealed possible heart blockage, and his blood tests indicated he had an abnormal white blood cell count, as well as an elevated enzyme level that can be indicative of a heart attack. He received instructions for taking eight over-the-counter and prescription medications, in addition to the medication he was already taking for diabetes. Douglas was also instructed to schedule follow-up testing and appointments with several specialists. Douglas was also given a doctor's note bearing the time 4:12 p.m. asking that he be excused from court on January 8.

         Based on this evidence, the Government argued that it was "possible that [Douglas] went there [at] 2:00 in the morning faking this illness, so he wouldn't have to be here today. It is also possible that that was a legitimate illness. I don't think that anything in the records tells us one way or the other." App. 388. Despite the hospital records, the District Court stated that "[t]here's no solid evidence, at least presented, that he was suffering from a medical condition that warranted him not to appear. It's really sort of ambiguous." App. ...

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