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Media Alerts - United States v. Kwame Williams a/k/a Arnold Fordham - Sixth Circuit
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April 1, 2013
  United States v. Kwame Williams a/k/a Arnold Fordham - Sixth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Circuit vacates sentence enhancement for use of alias in court proceedings.

Area of law: Sentence Enhancement; Materiality of False Information to Judge or Magistrate

Issue(s) presented: Whether the defendant's use of an alias was material to any issue decided by the magistrate and, therefore, a valid basis for applying a two-level sentence enhancement.

Brief summary: The defendant used a false name to secure a driver's license, and he used this alias when DEA agents arrested him and during preliminary proceedings before a federal magistrate. After revealing his true name, the defendant pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute oxycodone. At the sentencing hearing, the district court applied a two-level sentence enhancement because the defendant had provided "materially false information to the magistrate judge" by using the alias. The Sixth Circuit vacated and remanded for resentencing, holding that the defendant's alias was not material to the magistrate's findings on indigency and probable cause.

Significance: The Sixth Circuit's decision clarifies the meaning of "materially false information" in the sentencing context, explaining that the government cannot prevail based on a general showing of importance. Instead, the government must show that the false information given to a judge or a magistrate, if believed, would have influenced or affected the issue being decided.

Extended summary: After being deported, the defendant illegally re-entered the United States and was arrested in New York for kidnapping, robbery, assault, and marijuana possession. He failed to appear for his court dates and relocated to Tennessee. In 2010, the defendant obtained a Tennessee driver's license under the alias Arnold Fordham. The DEA later investigated him for distributing oxycodone and found over 1,000 oxycodone pills and 190 oxymorphone pills in his home. The DEA arrested the defendant, still believing that his name was Arnold Fordham.

During his initial appearance before a federal magistrate, the defendant identified himself as Arnold Fordham. He requested counsel and signed a financial affidavit under the name Arnold Fordham. He used the same name during a preliminary hearing to determine probable cause. The grand jury later indicted "Arnold Fordham" for possession with intent to distribute oxycodone. Two months after his initial court appearance, the defendant finally disclosed to the court his true identity: Kwame Williams. The defendant later pleaded guilty.

At the sentencing hearing, the government argued that the defendant obstructed justice by initially obscuring his actual name and that, for this reason, the district court should apply a two-level sentence enhancement. The district court agreed. It applied the enhancement, finding that the defendant had "provid[ed] materially false information to the magistrate judge." The district court sentenced the defendant to 87 months in prison. The defendant appealed.

The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded for resentencing. It explained that under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, courts "must increase a defendant's offense level by two points if the defendant 'willfully obstructed or impeded, or attempted to obstruct or impede, the administration of justice with respect to the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction.'" This type of willful conduct includes "providing materially false information to a judge or magistrate." Thus, the defendant's use of a false name before the magistrate would trigger the two-step enhancement if this falsehood was material.

Notwithstanding the district court's finding that a "defendant's identity is always material in a criminal proceeding," the Sixth Circuit held that the defendant's alias was not material in this case. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that for a falsehood to be "material," it must be information that, "if believed, would tend to influence or affect the issue under determination." For the two issues decided by the magistrate while the defendant was still using his alias - indigency and probable cause - this was not the case.

The magistrate's decision on whether to appoint counsel hinged on the defendant's financial needs. Although the defendant signed a financial affidavit with the false name Arnold Fordham, the Sixth Circuit found that "Arnold Fordham, for purposes of appointed counsel, was just as indigent as Kwame Williams." The court added that none of the financial information in the affidavit was false, only the name. Thus, there was no basis to find that the defendant's alias "had any tendency to affect the magistrate's decision" in determining whether to appoint counsel.

The magistrate's second relevant decision concerned the DEA's probable cause to arrest the defendant for possession of oxycodone with the intent to distribute it. In finding that probable cause existed, the magistrate relied on DEA agents' testimony about what they found in the defendant's home and the defendant's admission that he sold oxycodone. The defendant's alias did not influence this decision. Thus, the alias was not material on this issue, either.

Therefore, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court's application of a two-level enhancement, vacated the defendant's sentence, and remanded the case for resentencing.

Link to full opinion:

Panel: Gibbons, Kethledge, and Stranch

Argument: N/A

Date of issued opinion: March 14, 2013

Docket number: No:12-5675

Decided: Vacated and Remanded

Case alert author: Jody-Ann Greenwood

Counsel: ON BRIEF: Mariah A. Wooten, Anne-Marie Moyes, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant. Blanche B. Cook, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Author of opinion: Circuit Judge Kethledge

Case alert circuit supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Edited: 04/01/2013 at 04:13 PM by Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 04/01/2013 03:46 PM     6th Circuit  

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