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Obstruction of Justice or Mere Flight?

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By Corey Licht, Esq. on January 04, 2013 3:02 PM

James Nduribe, who was wanted for heroin offenses, led authorities on a 5-year chase across three continents. Eventually, the law caught up to Nduribe in Amsterdam, and he was extradited to the U.S. to face charges.

The trial court sentenced Nduribe to an additional twenty-two months of imprisonment for obstruction of justice. On appeal, Nduribe argued that his conduct didn't constitute obstruction, merely flight. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals didn't buy it.

In September 2006, Nduribe, a Nigerian citizen, was living in Chicago when he heard that the home of a co-conspirator had been raided by police. Nduribe allegedly called his drug supplier to warn him, and then called his family in Nigeria, requesting a passport and plane ticket. He fled to Nigeria soon after.

Nduribe eventually moved to Amsterdam and lived there for several years under an alias. All the while, authorities were searching for the fugitive. Finally, the Dutch government extradited Nduribe to the states in 2011 where he was convicted of heroin offenses.

Seeking a reduced sentence, Nduribe argued that his flight wasn't obstruction of justice. While there's no general federal crime of obstruction of justice, section 3C1.1(1) calls for a longer sentence 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."

While the sentencing guidelines are pretty clear cut, an application note added by the Sentencing Commission made things a bit murkier. The note states that types of conduct that "ordinarily do not warrant" application of the sentencing adjustment include "avoiding or fleeing from arrest." Nduribe contended that, under the note, his flight doesn't qualify as obstruction of justice.

The court looked at a prior case in which the note had been discussed, United States v. Draves. Draves was arrested for credit card fraud and placed in the back of a police cruiser. While handcuffed, Draves was able to escape the car and lead police on a chase that lasted only a few minutes. In that case, the flight wasn't considered obstruction and the sentence wasn't enhanced.

The court distinguished Draves from the present case by noting that Draves' "pathetic effort at flight did not impede the administration of justice." Nduribe's flight, on the other hand, lasted years, likely wasted government resources, and may have weakened the government's case, the court reasoned.

The Seventh Circuit held that flight is obstruction of justice within the meaning of the guideline "if it is likely to burden a criminal investigation or prosecution significantly." The court felt that twenty-two additional months of imprisonment weren't an excessive penalty for the five years Nduribe spent leading authorities on a chase.

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