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Sentencing enhancement for sadistic, masochistic, or violent materials and two special conditions of supervised release upheld

In United States v. Maurer, No. 10-3049 (April 22, 2011) the Third Circuit affirmed the procedural reasonableness of a 60-month sentence for possession of child pornography and two special conditions of supervised release.

The Court rejected Maurer’s challenge to application of a four-level sentencing enhancement for material “that portrays sadistic or masochistic conduct or other depictions of violence,” U.S.S.G. § 2G2.2(b)(4), and held that a sentencing court “need only find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the image depicts sexual activity involving a prepubescent minor that would have caused pain to the minor.”

The Court found that the application of U.S.S.G. § 2G2.2(b)(4) did not constitute an abuse of discretion, nor was the enhancement unconstitutionally vague or overly broad. The ordinary meaning of the terms sadism and masochism provides courts with sufficient guidance. Although violence can be interpreted broadly, courts must construe its meaning narrowly because it follows “sadistic and masochistic conduct.” Despite the narrow definitions, the Court explained that the application of § 2G2.2(b)(4) is not limited to circumstances where pain is the result of sexual penetration by an adult or bondage of the child. Citing cases from other circuits, the Court gave the examples of other acts which would justify the enhancement: sexual gratification which is purposefully degrading or humiliating or conduct which causes mental suffering or psychological or emotional injury. Expert testimony is not required for the court to make the finding. Finally, it is a strict liability enhancement: the sentencing court need not determine the defendant intended to possess the images or actually derived pleasure from viewing them. Applying this standard, the Court found the sentencing court made the appropriate findings.

Maurer also challenged two special conditions to be imposed over his five years of supervised release: (1) a prohibition on internet use, unless specifically approved by Probation; and (2) a prohibition on “any contact with children of either sex, under the age of 18, without the expressed approval” of Probation. The Court found that the nature of Maurer’s computer use, the character and size of his collection, and his stated sexual interest in minors justified both conditions.

As for internet use, the Court considered the length and coverage of the restriction, and underlying conduct. Although Maurer only pled guilty to possession, his internet use went beyond simply obtaining child pornography. He did not sexually exploit a minor, but was willing to use the internet to facilitate a sexual encounter and told a supposed 18-year old boy that he was interested in meeting younger boys. Thus, his use triggered concerns of predation. Also, the restriction was sufficiently narrow because it did not restrict all computer – just internet – access and a five-year restriction fell comfortably within the range of restrictions previously upheld.

Similarly, the facts showed that Maurer was a risk to children such that restriction on “any contact” with minors was appropriate, regardless of his offense of conviction. The “any contact” restriction was permissibly cabined to Probation’s ministerial role, unlike previously invalidated restrictions (1) to “follow the directions [of Probation] regarding any contact with children,” or (2) on “any contact” with children, imposed for a lifetime, on a defendant who had young children.

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