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United States of America v. Autumn Nichols
Case Number: 19-3685
Judge: Per Curiam - Before Kelly, Wollman, and Stras, Circuit Judges
Court: United States Court of Appeals
For the Eighth Circuit
On appeal from The U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota
Plaintiff's Attorney: United States Attorney’s Office
St. Louis, MO - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant charged with robbery.
The first set of challenges arises out of her decision to abscond from a halfway
house after she pleaded guilty. This decision led the district court to both grant an
obstruction-of-justice enhancement and deny an acceptance-of-responsibility
reduction, which substantially increased the range. See U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1
(obstruction-of-justice enhancement); id. § 3E1.1 (acceptance-of-responsibility
We review the interpretation of the Sentencing Guidelines de novo. See
United States v. Nguyen, 339 F.3d 688, 690 (8th Cir. 2003). Obstruction of justice
includes, among other acts, “escaping or attempting to escape from custody before
trial or sentencing.” U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1 cmt. n.4(E); see also United States v. Smith,
282 F.3d 1045, 1047 (8th Cir. 2002) (“An application note is . . . binding unless it is
plainly erroneous or conflicts with the Constitution, a federal statute, or the guideline
it seeks to interpret.”). We have already concluded that court-ordered residency at
a halfway house is a form of “custody.” See United States v. Goad, 788 F.3d 873,
876 (8th Cir. 2015). It follows that absconding from a halfway house and remaining
a fugitive for two-and-a-half months counts as “escaping . . . from custody.”
U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1 cmt. n.4(E); see Hayes v. United States, 281 F.3d 724, 725–26 (8th
Cir. 2002) (affirming an obstruction-of-justice enhancement when a defendant
absconded from a halfway house before sentencing); United States v. Martinez, 234
F.3d 1047, 1048 (8th Cir. 2000) (per curiam) (same).
Nichols recognizes that this line of authority exists, but she argues that the
district court should have disagreed with the Sentencing Guidelines on policy
grounds. It is clear, however, that the district court was under no duty “to do so,”
even if a “policy disagreement” can provide a reason to “deviate.” United States v.
Manning, 738 F.3d 937, 947 (8th Cir. 2014) (quotation marks omitted).
Nor is this the “extraordinary case in which” a defendant is still entitled to
an acceptance-of-responsibility reduction, despite having obstructed justice.
U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1 cmt. n.4. As the commentary explains, “[c]onduct resulting in an
enhancement [for obstruction of justice] ordinarily indicates that the defendant has
not accepted responsibility for [her] criminal conduct.” Id. At a minimum, the
district court had no obligation to conclude otherwise on these facts. See Nguyen,
339 F.3d at 690 (reviewing the district court’s findings on an acceptance-ofresponsibility reduction “for clear error”).
Finally, the district court adequately explained its reasoning and arrived at a
substantively reasonable sentence. See United States v. Guarino, 517 F.3d 1067,
1068 (8th Cir. 2008); United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461–62 (8th Cir.
2009) (en banc) (applying an abuse-of-discretion standard). It mentioned the
statutory sentencing factors, confirmed that it had considered them, and made clear
that it had imposed a sentence that was no “greater than necessary” to deter “future
criminal conduct.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
To be sure, Nichols presented several mitigating circumstances, including her
youth, traumatic upbringing, and limited role in the robbery. But there is no reason
to believe that the district court failed to consider them, particularly once it decided
to vary downward from the recommended range. See United States v. McKanry,
628 F.3d 1010, 1022 (8th Cir. 2011) (“Where a district court has sentenced a
defendant below the advisory guidelines range, it is nearly inconceivable that the
court abused its discretion in not varying downward still further.” (quotation marks
and brackets omitted)). In the end, her argument really comes down to a
disagreement with how much weight it placed on these factors, which “alone does
not justify reversal.” United States v. Townsend, 617 F.3d 991, 994 (8th Cir. 2010)
(per curiam); see also United States v. Nguyen, 829 F.3d 907, 926 (8th Cir. 2016)
(acknowledging the “wide latitude” that district courts have to weigh the statutory
Outcome: We accordingly affirm the judgment of the district court.