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United States v. Houchin

November 6, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garnett Thomas Eisele United States District Court


Mr. Houchin, a former Crittenden County Sheriff's Deputy, pled guilty to one count of subjecting one Joshua Williams to assault, causing bodily injury, and thereby depriving him of his constitutional right to be free from the unreasonable use of force by one acting under color of law, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242.

On Friday, November 2, 2007, Defendant Shannon Houchin came before the Court for sentencing. The Court rejected the Defendant's request for a sentence of probation. It also rejected the Government's request for a sentence within the guideline sentencing range of 24-30 months. Instead, the Court imposed a sentence of twelve months' imprisonment, to be followed by three years of supervised release. The Court explained many of its reasons for its sentencing decision during the sentencing hearing. This Order is intended to supplement the Court's previously stated reasons.


The Court began the sentencing process, as it always does, by computing the applicable guideline range for the offense. The total offense level for the offense of conviction was 17. To the base offense level of 10 were added a six level increase for committing the offense under color of law, a two level increase because the victim was restrained, and a two level increase for filing a false report. The Defendant had no prior criminal history points. A guideline range of 24-30 applied.

If the Court had imposed a sentence within the guideline range, it would have imposed a sentence at the low end, or 24 months. The Court instead held that the guideline sentence was too high and that a sentence of 12 months was a reasonable and just sentence.

The record in this case would support either a downward departure from the Guideline sentencing range or a downward variance pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Each theory is discussed separately.

(1) Guideline Downward Departure

The guidelines authorize a downward departure for aberrant behavior. Such departures are authorized "only if the defendant committed a single criminal occurrence or single criminal transaction that (1) was committed without significant planning; (2) was of limited duration; and (3) represents a marked deviation by the defendant from an otherwise law-abiding life." U.S.S.G. § 5K2.20(b).

Prior to the Defendant's assault on Mr. Williams, the Defendant and Mr. Williams were involved in a physical altercation when the Defendant attempted to arrest Mr. Williams on an outstanding arrest warrant. Mr. Williams was subsequently arrested after another officer found him in a nearby trailer. The arresting officer handcuffed Mr. Williams, placed him his patrol car, and transported him to the detention center. Upon arrival, the Defendant pulled up behind them in his patrol car. The arresting officer exited his vehicle, leaving Mr. Williams handcuffed in the back seat. The Defendant opened the back door of the patrol car, struck Mr. Williams several times with his fist, slammed Mr. Williams into his knee, and hit Mr. Williams with his baton. The Defendant also discharged one or two bursts of pepper spray at Mr. Williams. After Mr. Williams was removed from the car, the Defendant struck him several more times before placing him in a cell.

This offense did not result in serious bodily injury. If so, this guideline departure could not be applied. U.S.S.G. § 5K2.0(c). As a result of Defendant's criminal conduct, Mr. Williams was treated by a nurse for a superficial abrasion on his forehead and a swollen nose and lip. Mr. Williams was given nasal spray and ibuprofen. No further treatment was required.

The Court is influenced greatly by the overwhelming evidence that the Defendant's conduct on this occasion was out of character. Several letters recounted that the Defendant had never shown any signs of aggression or violence prior to this occasion and the authors of the letters noted their shock upon learning of this charge. During the sentencing, Aubrey Zachary, Jr., a retired captain with the West Memphis Police Department testified that he personally reviewed the Defendant's police record and background check, on the basis of which he recruited the Defendant to come to work for the West Memphis Police Department. Mr. Zachary personally attested to the Defendant's professionalism on the job.

The undersigned has been a federal district judge for 37 years. In the Court's experience, most convictions of this nature involve an officer with some prior history of questionable conduct or at least the suggestion of violence brewing below the surface. Here, we have an officer with an exemplary police record. The Court is further influenced by the Defendant's commitment and contributions to his community. The Defendant has served as a volunteer fireman, coached youth football, raised money for Muscular Dystrophy, and served as a Mason. Finally, those familiar with the Defendant on a personal level expressed in their letters his strong commitment to his own family, which includes his wife and three children.

The Court concludes, based on the record as a whole, that the Defendant's conduct on this single occasion represents a marked deviation by the Defendant from his otherwise exemplary record. Because this single criminal occurrence was committed without significant planning and was of limited duration, ...

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