October 19, 2012

If You Make A Colorable Argument For A Lower Sentence, A District Court Has To Show That It Considered The Argument, Even If The Crime Is Using MySpace To Try To Have Sex With Underage Girls

Michael Begin was a MySpace user. He used MySpace not so much to keep up with fan information about Twilight, but to make the acquaintance of a fourteen-year-old girl.

Though described as a twenty-year old Marine sniper on his MySpace profile, Mr. Begin was actually a 33 year old man with a history of convictions involving underage girls.

1382778_old_brick_cell_phone.jpgMr. Begin and the fourteen year old talked on MySpace often. Their conversations were sexual in nature. He also used his cell phone to send her two pictures which were perhaps inspired by Congressman Weiner. The girls' mother became concerned. Her daughter told Mr. Begin that she was underage. Mr. Begin was undeterred.

The mother contacted the FBI. An FBI agent took over the girls' MySpace page. In addition to posting praise of Robert Mueller, the FBI Agent, posing as the 14-year-old girl, told Mr. Begin that she is underage.

Mr. Begin was undaunted.

The agent, as the girl, made plans to meet Mr. Begin at a restaurant in Bradford, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Begin showed up carrying a knife, a pair of handcuffs, and a condom. After being Mirandized, he admitted he was meeting the girl to have sex with her.

He pled guilty to a two-count indictment:

Count One charged that Begin violated 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b) by using the internet and a cellular phone to attempt to persuade a minor "to engage in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, to wit, statutory sexual assault, in violation of [18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3122.1], aggravated indecent assault, in violation of [18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3125(a)(8)], and indecent assault[,] in violation of [18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3126(a)(8)]." App. 17. Count Two charged that Begin violated 18 U.S.C. § 1470 by using a cellular phone to transfer an obscene image to a minor.

At sentencing, Mr. Begin argued for a variance. As the Third Circuit in United States v. Begin summarized it,

Begin argued that the sentence for his attempt to induce statutory rape under 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b) should not exceed the fifteen-year statutory maximum penalty for actually committing statutory rape within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States under 18 U.S.C. § 2243.

The Third Circuit thought this argument was colorable - it was a plausible argument and the district court was, therefore, obligated to talk about it when imposing sentence.

The district court disagreed, and completely ignored the argument when sentencing Mr. Begin to twenty years, double the sentence that he was asking for.

The Third Circuit found that this was not a procedurally kosher way to sentence someone.

Having concluded that Begin's . . . disparity argument has colorable legal merit under § 3553(a)(6), we agree with him that the District Court failed to make a sufficient record to demonstrate its consideration of that argument. Though the Court summarized Begin‟s state-federal disparity argument at the beginning of the sentencing hearing, it did not acknowledge that he had also made a federal-federal disparity argument. The Court asked no questions during defense counsel‟s oral argument in favor of downward variance on this ground and made no comments about the issue following that presentation. Strikingly, the Court did not even specifically rule on Begin‟s request for a variance.

Though, what the Third Circuit gives, it also takes away:

We emphasize that colorable legal merit is distinct from actual merit. There is reason to believe that the predatory nature of Begin‟s conduct and the knife and handcuffs found in his possession distinguish his offense from a run-of-the-mill statutory rape. Indeed, the stiff penalties under § 2422(b) are intended to punish and deter predators who use the reach and anonymity of the internet to perpetrate sex crimes against children. . . . Thus, when we say that Begin‟s claim has colorable legal merit, we mean only that, upon appropriate findings of fact, the District Court would be within its discretion to accept the argument and to factor it into the ultimate sentence.

But Mr. Begin will be going back to the district court for it to make a proper record when imposing sentence. We'll see whether it accepts the Third Circuit's suggestions for how to do that.

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