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Short Wins – the Distribution of Child Pornography Gets (slightly) Limited Edition

Child porn cases are turning out to be a surprisingly large portion of what’s in federal court.

Child pornography is gross and wrong, to be clear. But these cases are, I think, a symptom of a larger problem.

All of us have times in our lives when we’re in the wilderness, when we feel adrift and alienated and unsure of where we’re going or where we are. Some folks in this time of life turn to alcohol, Some turn to drugs, video games, or other ways to keep themselves from facing the great chasm of dissatisfaction that their lives have become. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desparation” and all that.

Maybe this desperation is more acute in these times, maybe it’s an inevitable part of what it is to be human.

In any event, as anyone who has defended someone who has been accused of possession of child pornography knows, unfortunately, some folks come to this dark place in their lives and instead of drinking their time away, they turn to pornography. Often they start on more mainstream stuff, come to be desensitized and look for things that are more and more disturbing. That can lead them to child pornography. Or these folks are just searching for pornography in volume and come to the massive troves of child pornography floating around the internet.

The government is not shy about bringing these cases. Much as folks with drug addictions get punished by our government when they come to harder stuff – even though what they really ought to get is treatment – people who merely possess child pornography are too aggressively pursued for what is often a mental health problem that requires treatment.

Happily, in United States v. Husmann, the Third Circuit took a stand against a particularly gross practice in the prosecution of child pornography laws.

Much child pornography is shared through online file sharing systems. So, you can have child pornography in a folder that you mark to be shared with others on the internet.

The government sometimes takes the position that making stuff available through putting it in a folder that allows sharing is distribution of child pornography. Distribution is a massively more severe crime than possession with a much more severe mandatory minimum. And by threatening a distribution charge where a person only allowed file sharing, the government can coerce plenty of people into taking a plea, or taking a plea under worse terms.

Thankfully, the Third Circuit came out against that practice, holding that just showing the images were available for sharing isn’t the same as saying they were distributed.

To the victories!

1155650_berlin_siegessule.jpg1. United States v. Groysman, Second Circuit: Appellant was convicted of health care fraud and money laundering. The main government witness gave testimony that included inadmissible hearsay and opinions, and was allowed, without personal knowledge, to provide the foundation for seven government exhibits that were inaccurate and misleading. The admission of misleading exhibits for which the witness had no personal knowledge of the matters conveyed, as well as inappropriate opinion testimony relating to Appellant’s role in the scheme, was prejudicial and required the convictions to be vacated and the case remanded for a new trial.

Defense Attorney: Maurice H. Sercarz
2. United States v. Brown, Third Circuit: Appellant’s conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm was vacated and the remanded for a new trial. The district court erred in admitting evidence of Appellant’s past firearm purchases. Although the government had a legitimate non-propensity purpose for admitting the evidence–it showed Appellant’s knowledge of the firearm in his car–it still violated 404(b) because the government did not proffer a sufficient explanation of why the evidence was relevant. Evidence that Appellant had previous purchased firearms does nothing to establish that he knowingly possessed a gun six years later.

Defense Attorney: Kimberly R. Brunson
3. United States v. Brown, Third Circuit: The district court inappropriately applied a sentencing enhancement after finding that Appellant was a career offender, requiring Appellant’s sentence to be vacated. There is a narrow range of cases where a court can look beyond the legal requirements, and instead examine the factual bases for a conviction to determine if it was a crime of violence. But here, exploring the underlying facts was in error because the prior conviction did not require the factfinder to make a determination that there was a crime of violence so the modified categorical approach cannot be used.

Defense Attorney: Thomas W. Patton
4. United States v. Husmann, Third Circuit: Appellant was convicted by a jury of three counts of distributing child pornography after Appellant placed images in a shared computer folder connected to a file sharing network. At trial, the government did not present evidence that any person had downloaded or obtained those images. The mere placement of images into a folder, making those images available to users of the file sharing network, does not constitute distribution. Appellant’s conviction was therefore vacated.

Defense Attorneys: Theodore C. Forrence, Jr., Kenneth C. Edelin, Jr.

5. United States v. Foster, Sixth Circuit: Appellant was sentenced to 622 months’ imprisonment for two counts of drug possession, two counts of firearm possession, one count of drug distribution, and one count of conspiracy. One of the drug possession charges as well as one firearm possession counts were vacated because they were in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. Those two counts duplicate other counts for which Appellant was convicted and sentenced.

Defense Attorney: Frederick Liu
6. United States v. Miller, Sixth Circuit: A jury found Appellants guilty of hate crimes after a string of assaults in Amish communities where the Appellants would cut the hair of members of their Amish community. During trial, the court gave a jury instruction requiring the jury to find that the faith of the victims must be a “significant factor” in motivating the assaults. The convictions must be vacated and Appellants retried because the instruction should have required the jury to find that the faith of the victims was a “but for” cause of the assaults.

Defense Attorneys: Michael E. Rosman, Matthew D. Ridings, Wendi L. Overmyer, Rhonda L. Kotnik, John R. Mithcell, Kip T. Bollin, Holly H. Little, Mark R. Butscha, Jr., David C. Jack, George C. Pappas, Brian M. Pierce, Joseph A. Dubyak, Samuel G. Amendolara, Steven R. Jaeger, Robert E. Duffrin, Rhys . Cartwright-Jones, Damian A. Billak, J. Dean Carro, Wesley A. Dumas, Sr., James S. Gentile, Nathan A. Ray, and Gary H. Levine
7. United States v. Prater, Sixth Circuit: A conviction for third-degree burglary under New York law is not a “violent felony” for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. The district court’s determination that these were violent felonies without applying the modified categorical approach was in error. The sentence was vacated and the case remanded.

Defense Attorney: Laura E. Davis
8. United States v. Chapman, Seventh Circuit: Appellant was convicted of drug trafficking by a jury. The district court erroneously admitted details of Appellant’s prior drug-trafficking conviction under Rule 404(b). The judge allowed the government to use that evidence to prove knowledge and intent, but the relevance of the evidence depended entirely on a forbidden propensity inference. Appellant’s conviction was vacated and remanded for a new trial.

9. United States v. Gonzalez, Seventh Circuit: Appellants were members of the Almighty Latin Kings Nation gang and most pled guilty to various charges, although one went to trial. Appellant Anaya, who was found guilty at trial, must be resentenced because the district court increased a statutory maximum based on facts that were not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the sentencing guidelines should have reflected a maximum of 20 years as opposed to 30.

10. United States v. Johnson, Seventh Circuit: At sentencing, the district court did not announce a term of supervised release, but one was incorporated in the court’s written amended judgment. The conditions of supervised release which were not orally announced at sentencing were vacated and the case remanded for the district court to clarify conditions of the supervised release.

11. United States v. Fowlkes, Ninth Circuit: The forcible removal of drugs from Appellant’s rectum during a body cavity search, without medical training or a warrant, violated Appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The evidence obtained from that brutal and physically invasive search should have been suppressed. The conviction predicated on the drugs was vacated and the case remanded for resentencing.

Defense Attorney: Thomas P. Sleisenger
12. United States v. Luis, Ninth Circuit: The district court erred in calculating the loss amount after Appellant pled guilty to conspiracy and loan fraud. The district court erred by calculating the restitution amount based on the unpaid principal loan balance rather than the value of the loans when they were purchased.

Defense Attorney: Todd W. Burns
13. United States v. Nora, Ninth Circuit: The district court’s denial of a motion to suppress was reversed. Although Appellant’s arrest was supported by probable cause, it violated the Fourth Amendment because officers physically took Appellant into custody in his front yard by surrounding his house and ordering him out at gunpoint. All evidence seized in the search incident to arrest should have been suppressed, as should the statements made by Appellant’s statements.

Defense Attorney: Michael J. Treman
14. Wharton v. Chappell, Ninth Circuit: The district court’s denial of habeas was vacated and remanded for further factual proceedings to determine ineffective assistance of counsel. Appellant’s claim that his lawyer was ineffective for failing to investigate and present testimony by Appellant’s half-brother that there was sexual abuse ubiquitous in Appellant’s family could have merit as the jury may not have rendered a verdict of death. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

Defense Attorneys: Marcia A. Morrissey and Lynne S. Coffin