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Florida Guard’s Conviction for Falsifying Use-of-Force Report Affirmed

by David M. Reutter

On July 13, 2010, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of a former Florida prison guard for making a false entry in a report with the intent to impede a federal investigation.

Before the Court was the appeal of Wilton Joseph Fontenot, formerly a sergeant at Union Correctional Institution. Fontenot and another prison guard, Clyde Daniel, tried to enter prisoner Corey Milledge’s cell to perform a cell inspection in November 2003. A violent altercation ensued.

Afterwards, Fontenot wrote a use-of-force report that indicated he followed prison rules and Milledge had attacked him through the feeding slot of his cell door. Control room guard Joni White, who could see some of the events unfold on surveillance cameras, reported details that differed from Fontenot’s account.

Daniel told an investigator he had falsified his report at Fontenot’s request. According to Daniel’s subsequent account, Fontenot entered Milledge’s cell in violation of prison rules and initiated the altercation by punching Milledge in the head. The incident ended when Fontenot choked Milledge into unconsciousness with a plastic trash bag. Milledge was 16 years old at the time.

Federal authorities charged Fontenot in a three-count indictment on April 17, 2007. He was acquitted on the first two counts, but convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 11519 for knowingly making false entries in a report with the intent to obstruct an investigation within the jurisdiction of a federal agency. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida sentenced Fontenot to fifteen months in prison. [See: PLN, Sept. 2007, p.18].

Fontenot argued on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to convict him, because the prosecution did not prove he knew the falsified report would be part of a federal investigation. As the Eleventh Circuit viewed the issue, Fontenot was challenging the district court’s jury instructions. Because he had not objected to the instructions, however, the review by the Court of Appeals was limited to plain error.

To reverse under the plain error standard, there must be (1) error, (2) that is plain, and (3) that affects the appellant’s substantial rights. The Eleventh Circuit held that Fontenot’s argument failed because it was not clear under either current law or the statute’s plain language that a defendant must know the investigation will fall under federal jurisdiction. What is important, the Court wrote, is that the matter falls “within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States.”

For those reasons, Fontenot’s conviction was affirmed. See: United States v. Fontenot, 611 F.3d 734 (11th Cir. 2010), petition for cert. filed.

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Related legal case

United States v. Fontenot