Friday, May 21, 2010

Child Pornography / Warrants / Sufficiency / Evidence of Age

U.S. v. Vosburgh, 2010 WL 1542340, April 20, 2010. Vosburgh appealed his conviction following a jury trial of possession and attempted possession of child pornography (18 U.S.C. § 2252). The investigation of Vosburgh began when an IP address linked to his account attempted to download child pornography on the internet. This, in addition to assertions that child pornography collectors maintain materials and rarely dispose of them, was the basis for issuance of a warrant to search Vosburgh’s apartment four months later. In his apartment agents seized an external hard drive which was later found to contain hundreds of images of "child erotica" (defined as sexually suggestive photos not sufficiently lascivious to meet the definition of sexually explicit conduct), and a thumbnail image file which contained two images of child pornography. The two images did not exist as independent picture files on the computer. The government asserted at trial that the existence of the thumbnail files indicated Vosburgh’s "prior possession" and viewing of the full image files, although they had since been deleted.

The Circuit affirmed the conviction in a lengthy opinion, finding that: (1) the warrant to search defendant's apartment, based on use of his IP address to access unlawful internet content four month’s earlier, provided a substantial basis for concluding there was a fair probability that contraband or evidence of an attempt to possess child pornography would be found in defendant's apartment; (2) the government did not constructively amend the indictment as to the count charging defendant with possession of child pornography by impermissibly changing its theory of prosecution, during closing argument, as to which visual depictions of child pornography-thumbnail images or full-size images-defendant unlawfully possessed; indictment did not charge defendant with possessing any particular depiction of child pornography, but with possessing a computer hard drive that contained visual depictions of child pornography, and any variance was not prejudicial as the defense at trial belied any claim of surprise; (3) the evidence was sufficient for the jury to make a finding on the government’s "prior possession" theory, where only thumbnails of files remained on the hard drive, and (4) admission of "child erotica" was not an abuse of discretion, as possession was probative of the defendant's interest in children, the limiting instruction was sufficient.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Defendant Liable for Co-conspirator’s Loss, Applying Victim Enhancement to One Conspirator Did Not Create Unwarranted Disparity

U.S. v. Robinson, 2010 WL 1610582, (April 22, 2010). Robinson pled guilty to conspiring to steal and convert United States Treasury checks in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 641 and 371, arising out of a scheme led by an individual named Jeffress, who provided "checkcashers"-Robinson and other individuals-with stolen Treasury checks and fake id, and drove them to checkcashing stores.

On appeal Robinson challenged the district court's calculation of his sentencing guideline range of 27 to 33 months, as it included the number and dollar amount of checks converted by another checkcasher, with whom Robinson contended he did not conspire. The Circuit affirmed the sentence, finding that the extra loss was properly attributable under § 1B1.3 given Robinson’s implicit agreement to cash stolen checks for Jeffress, the leader of the conspiracy, such that checks cashed by other checkcashers were reasonably foreseeable and within scope and in furtherance of their joint criminal activity. Robinson and the other checkcasher knew each other, Robinson knew that the checkcasher was cashing stolen checks for Jeffress, he and the other checkcasher were in same check-cashing store at the same time on two occasions, and an inference could be drawn that they came and went to that location together driven by Jefress.

Next, the Circuit rejected Robinson’s claim that application of a multiple-victim enhancement to his sentence created an unwarranted disparity where the same enhancement was not applied to a co-defendant. It reasoned that Robinson had failed to show that he was similarly situated to his co-defendant, finding no basis for concluding that the district court viewed co-defendant’s conduct similarly to Robinson's in terms of victims, particularly because the enhancement resulted from his being responsible for the previously mentioned checkcasher’s conduct as well.

Sentence Below Career Offender Guideline Found Procedurally Unreasonable

United States v. Merced, 2010 WL 1542263, April 20, 2010. Merced pleaded guilty to a drug possession charge, his career offender guideline range was 188 - 235 months. At sentencing, the district court pointed to several factors in support of a below-guideline range, including the "street level" nature of Merced's previous crimes, his own possible drug problem, his troubled childhood, his strong family relationships, and the fact that his longest prior prison term was, at most, four years. The court addressed most of the § 3553 factors, but did not mention unwarranted disparity. The court also noted at one point "I kind of reserve career offender status for violent, significant drug deals, that type of thing, even though the guidelines may advise that it's appropriate." The court ultimately sentenced Merced to 60 months.
The Third Circuit, in an opinion thoroughly recapping reasonableness review precedent, found the sentence procedurally unreasonable based on two errors. First, based on the above statements, it found that the district court may have sentenced Merced pursuant to a personal policy disagreement with the scope of the career offender provision of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1. While recognizing that a variance on such grounds may be permissible, the court explained that the district court must state clearly whether it is granting a variance based on a policy disagreement with § 4B1.1 and, if so, explain its reasoning more thoroughly. Second, the circuit found that the district court failed to analyze a highly relevant sentencing factor, § 3553(a)(6). Finding that Merced’s sentence may have created a risk of unwarranted disparity between similarly situated recidivist crack cocaine dealers, the district court should have considered this issue, and addressed the government's argument that a Guidelines sentence was necessary to promote uniformity in sentencing.