Sex-Trafficking Appeal Puts 40-Year Sentence Into Question

ATLANTA (CN) — Fighting for resentencing by another judge, a lawyer for a sex trafficker argued at the 11th Circuit on Wednesday that the trial court was unfair in ordering more than twice the prison time sought by the government.

“I’m not defending sex trafficking but the sentence was unreasonably enhanced,” said attorney H. Manuel Hernandez. “We request remand for resentencing before a different judge.”

Back in 2017, it was U.S. District Judge Carlos Mendoza in Orlando who ordered  Hernandez’s client, Abdullah Hamidullah to face a 40-year prison term and pay $1.1 million in restitution.

That works out to 482 months, but federal prosecutors had sought a more lenient sentence of between 180 and 188 months.

A year earlier, Hamidullah had pleaded guilty to coercing an 18-year-old woman to travel to Florida by falsely offering her employment. Hamidullah admitted that he brought the woman to his Orlando apartment, assaulted her, and forced her into prostitution.

Over a period of several months, while forcing the woman to engage in sex acts with multiple customers per day, Hamidullah kept the woman isolated and intimidated. His plea deal confirms that he took away her cellphone, confiscated her money, had her tattooed with the word “Daddy” and installed an alarm on the door to the apartment without giving her the access code.

Attorney Hernandez did not dispute his client’s conviction but he said the sentence given to Hamidullah was too severe.

“The proceedings at sentencing were procedurally unreasonable,” Hernandez told the three-judge appellate panel.

One problem with Hamidullah’s sentencing hearing, the attorney argued, was that Mendoza improperly relied on and referenced disputed statements from a presentence investigation report.

Since Hamidullah’s case never went to trial, Hernandez said the government never substantiated the allegations in its report.

Justice Department attorney Yvette Rhodes tried to make the case Wednesday that the report also contained many undisputed facts, “which were stipulated to in the plea agreement,” but the appellate panel appeared skeptical.

“Here are several things the District Court mentioned at sentencing,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor said this morning. “He mentions [Hamidullah] forced victims to get abortions and he whipped and choked victims with a dog leash. … These were facts mentioned by the district court when it upwardly varied [the sentence], which were disputed aspects of the [pre-sentence investigation report.”

Pryor pressed Rhodes repeatedly on why the government has not joined Hamidullah in seeking to remand the sentence.

“The government was obliged to prove those facts if it wants the district court to rely on those facts at sentencing,” Pryor said.

“After the district court upwardly varied your recommended 188 months, and relied on a lot of disputed facts in the [report],” he continued, “why didn’t the government say, ‘Wait, we need to prove these facts in the record?’”

Rhodes remained stalwart, however, as Pryor returned again to the government’s failure to object.

“I can see the court’s view, but I’m not sure I’m in a position to concede error,” Rhodes said.

During the argument for Hamidullah meanwhile, Pryor attorney Hernandez on whether he showed “a basis for remand before a different judge if we were to vacate and remand.”

Hernandez said there was. “I urge the court to go back to the sentencing transcript,” he said. “The judge said my client was a bad person and said if he was looking for absolution, he wouldn’t get it. … No reasonable observer would agree that the judge would go back and set aside the sentence and re-sentence for less than he did.”

Pryor was joined on the Atlanta panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum and Chief U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, sitting by designation from the Southern District of Florida. 

The panel did not indicate when they might issue a decision in the case. 

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