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Monday, December 11, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Flight From Arrest Spells Harsher Drug Sentencing

CHICAGO (CN) - A Nigerian heroin dealer who fled abroad and evaded police for five years should serve more time for obstruction of justice, the 7th Circuit ruled.

James Nduribe, a Nigerian national who lived in Chicago, somehow learned in 2006 that police were closing in on his heroin distribution ring. After tipping of his supplier, Nduribe bought a new cellphone, called relatives in Nigeria, and had them send him a Nigerian passport and airline tickets.

Nduribe picked up the documents in New York, which he reached by first traveling through Little Rock, Ark., and flew to Nigeria.

Under his new alias, Nduribe moved to Amsterdam but ultimately caught the attention of Dutch authorities who extradited him to the United States where he had been indicted in absentia. Nduribe tried claiming that he was someone else, but pleaded guilty to the drug offense after five years of evading arrest.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan sentenced Nduribe to nearly 10 years, applying a two-level obstruction of justice enhancement.

Had Nduribe not fled, the sentence would have been two years shorter, Der-Yeghiayan said.

Nduribe appealed, arguing that his prolonged flight did not qualify him for the obstruction enhancement under federal sentencing guidelines. The enhancement adds two levels to the base level "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," the 7th Circuit explained.

Nduribe's flight "may have made it more difficult for the government to prosecute him and his confederates and may have induced the government to make concessions in plea bargaining that it would not have made had it not been for the lag in time between the crime and the defendant's involuntary return to face justice," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the three-judge panel. "Granted, these are conjectures; but we do not think proof that a five-year wild goose chase is a burden to law enforcement is necessary; the point is obvious."

Common sense aside, the case is complicated by an application note to the enhancement, according to the ruling.

Note 5 specifies that "avoiding or fleeing from arrest (provided the flight does not cause 'reckless endangerment')" does not "ordinarily" warrant application of the enhancement, the court said.

If read literally, the note produces a seemingly absurd result, it added.

"If providing a false name or identification document at arrest merits the two-level increase when 'such conduct actually resulted in a significant hindrance to the investigation or prosecution of the instant offense,' why should avoiding or fleeing from arrest not merit the increase when significant hindrance to the investigation or prosecution of the offense results," Posner asked.

Such a result is clearly at odds with the intentions of the Sentencing Commission, the court determined.

"Flight from arrest is obstruction of justice within the meaning of the guideline ... if it is likely to burden a criminal investigation or prosecution significantly - likely to make the investigation or prosecution significantly more costly or less effective than it would otherwise have been," Posner wrote.

The court affirmed Nduribe's sentence, noting that the obstruction enhancement could also be justified because of the warning he gave to a co-conspirator.

Nduribe's given name is Shefu Adebanji Alade Amisu, according to the ruling.

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