Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Finds Sentencing Errors in Judgment Against Sunset Mesa Funeral Home Operators

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals building in Denver, also known as the Byron White building.

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Sanchez, Estate of Lopez and Martinez v. Guzman, McGrath, Carns and Martinez

Marta Sanchez, the estate of Stephanie Lopez and Dominic Martinez brought an excessive-force action against Littleton Police Department officers Anthony Guzman, Luke McGrath and Joseph Carns, as well as Englewood Police Department officer Brian Martinez. 

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the basis they were entitled to qualified immunity. 

According to the opinion, the parties’ arguments reveal starkly different pictures of the factual circumstances that form the basis of this action. 

On one hand, plaintiffs describe an incident in which defendants fired 66 bullets into plaintiffs’ motionless vehicle while they were attempting to surrender and presenting no observable threat—actions that killed Lopez, rendered Sanchez a paraplegic and severely injured Martinez. 

On the other hand, defendants describe a multifaceted police pursuit and shooting whereby plaintiffs—after fleeing the scene of an armed carjacking in a stolen vehicle—led police on a high-speed car chase, fleeing after each of the defendants’ three attempts to stop the plaintiffs’ vehicle. According to defendants, plaintiffs used their vehicle as a weapon against defendants and, more generally, endangered the public through use of their vehicle. 

Under the unique circumstances of this case, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals was unable to make a qualified-immunity determination based on the plaintiffs’ version of facts because they failed to identify the record evidence that supports the versions of facts they pleaded and argued in their briefing, according to the opinion. 

Because of this failure, the plaintiffs effectively waived the 10th Circuit’s review of their qualified-immunity challenge. Accordingly, the 10th Circuit was constrained on this basis to uphold the district court’s judgment. 

The 10th Circuit affirmed. 

United States v. Hess 

Funeral-home owner and operator Megan Hess and her employee-mother, Shirley Koch, pleaded guilty to mail fraud for fraudulently obtaining, selling and shipping dead bodies and body parts to medical research, plastination and body-broker companies. 

Despite the defendants reaching plea agreements with the government that recommended guideline calculations and associated sentencing ranges under the U.S. sentencing guidelines, the district court applied additional enhancements and, after doing so, varied upward to the statutory maximum of 20 years for Hess and to 180 months for Koch. 

Hess and Koch argue that the district court erred as a matter of law in its loss calculations, and Koch argues that the court incorrectly enhanced her sentence based on the court’s finding that the offense involved a large number of vulnerable victims and that Koch committed the offense using sophisticated means. Hess also asks that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reassign her case to a different judge on remand. 

The 10th Circuit concluded the district court erred by including in the actual-loss total the amounts the body-parts purchasers paid Hess, that the district court erred by categorically refusing to offset the value of goods and services the next of kin received at the time of the fraud, but that the district court correctly attributed the same loss to Koch as it did to Hess. 

The 10th Circuit also found the district court erred by making class determinations of vulnerability for two categories of victims: the deceased themselves and their grieving family members. It concluded the victims who were deceased when the fraud was committed were not vulnerable victims for the purpose of this enhancement. 

For the grieving family members, the 10th Circuit found that the district court erred in finding that “[t]hose in grief are vulnerable victims” because it didn’t explain how the next of kins’  grief made it any easier for the defendants to commit their fraud. 

The 10th Circuit reversed the district court’s application of the large-number-of-victims enhancement and remanded for further proceedings in which the district court may make particularized findings of vulnerability showing the requisite nexus between vulnerability and the defendants’ fraud to support the application. 

The 10th Circuit agreed with Koch that the sophisticated-means enhancement doesn’t apply to her. Because the 10th Circuit agreed with Koch’s argument that the sophisticated-means enhancement was incorrectly applied, the 10th Circuit vacated Koch’s sentence and remanded for further proceedings. 

The 10th Circuit also concluded that because Hess alleged sufficient loss offsets to reduce her sentencing guidelines range, that the district court’s procedural errors were not harmless. But the 10th Circuit declined to reassign the case to a different judge. 

The 10th Circuit vacated their sentences and remanded for further proceedings.  

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