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Tenth Circuit Vacates Oklahoma Prisoners’ Witness Tampering Conviction

by David M. Reutter

On April 5, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that a conviction for federal witness tampering requires an affirmative answer to two questions: (1) Did the defendant contemplate a particular proceeding in which the witness would testify and (2) was it reasonably likely that the proceeding would be federal?

The Court’s opinion was issued in the consolidated appeals of Klawaun L. Sutton and Derrick C. Segue. Their criminal case traces back to the January 2019 arrest of a fellow Oklahoman, Brandon Bridges, who then assisted the Muskogee Police Department in obtaining a search warrant for the home of a fourth man, Cornelious Jones. There, police found firearms and methamphetamine. Jones was arrested on state charges and put in the Muskogee County Jail.

When he landed in jail with Bridges, Jones told Sutton and Segue — who were also being held at the jail on suspicion of drug violations — that Bridges was a “snitch” who should be “smacked.” In fact, Bridges was helping the federal government build a case against Jones as “part of a broad FBI and DEA investigation into drug trafficking in Muskogee,” the U.S. Attorney later announced.

Hearing what Jones told them, Sutton and Segue set up a jail fight with Bridges, after which they were charged under U.S.C. § 1512 with conspiring to tamper with a federal witness through threats or intimidation. They moved for acquittal, arguing to the federal court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma that they couldn’t have known that Bridges was a witness in a federal case. But the motion was denied. After a two-day trial in October 2019, a jury found both men guilty, and they appealed.

The Tenth Circuit began with the element of intent, noting that the government needed to show the defendants “knowingly” conspired to use intimidation, threats, or corrupt persuasion “with intent to . . . influence, delay, or prevent the testimony of [another] person in an official proceeding.” The Court concluded that the holdings in Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States, 544 U.S. 696 (2005), and Fowler v. United States, 563 U.S. 668 (2011), require “the government to prove that the defendant contemplated a proceeding that was reasonably likely to be federal [in order] to sustain a conviction for witness tampering under § 1512(b)(1).”

Turning then to the facts on appeal, the Court noted that Jones was arrested by Arkansas state law enforcement officers operating with a state search warrant and that he was then housed in a county jail on state charges. “So all of the evidence shows that if the defendants had intended to interfere with a specific judicial proceeding, that proceeding would have been state — not federal,” the Court reasoned. Thus the convictions of Sutton and Segue for conspiring to violate § 1512(b)(1) were vacated. See: United States v. Sutton, 30 F.4th 981 (10th Cir. 2022). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Sutton