Thursday, January 21, 2021

Enticement of a minor and travel case: sufficient evidence, no misstatement of law, no entrapment, no plain error in sentencing enhancement for misrepresenting age and sexual orientation

United States v. Davis, --- F.3d ----, 2021 WL 97427, Appeal No. 19-1696 (3d Cir. Jan. 12, 2021);

Davis answered a Craigslist ad supposedly about an 18-year old “Wild Child” and then chatted over an eight-day period with an undercover officer acting as a 14-year old minor about sex and other things. Davis ultimately drove from New York to meet the minor in a parking lot in Pennsylvania, bringing condoms with him. He was charged with attempting to entice a minor to engage in sexual conduct, 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b), and for traveling with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, 18 U.S.C. § 2423(b). His defenses were that he thought he was role-playing with an adult and that he was entrapped. He was convicted by a jury on both counts and sentenced to 127 months imprisonment. The Third Circuit rejected four points on appeal.

The evidence was sufficient: Attempt requires proof of a requisite intent and a substantial step. Although sometimes a substantial step may supply unequivocal evidence of criminal intent, it need not always do so. If the government presents evidence (need not be unequivocal) of criminal intent independent of a defendant’s substantial step, then the substantial step need only corroborate criminal intent. Davis’s post-arrest confession to knowing the minor’s age and their text communications are each evidence of criminal intent independent of that demonstrated by his substantial steps (travel to the prearranged meeting place and possession of condoms).  

The prosecutor did not misstate the law in closing: The government did not err in arguing that post-enticement acts like travel or the possession of condoms could be a substantial step for enticement of a minor. The substantial step inquiry corroborates criminal intent and establishes that a defendant went beyond mere planning. The substantial step must relate to but need not be the exact conduct criminalized by the statute. Here travel and condom possession related to the enticing communications because they demonstrated the communications were not “all hot air.”

Davis was not legally entrapped: The Court found Davis was not entrapped as a matter of law. To disprove the affirmative defense of entrapment, the government can show predisposition by “a willingness to commit the crime for which he is charged as evidenced by the accused’s ready response to the inducement.” The Court found the chats showed that when Davis discovered he was corresponding with a 14-year-old who posted a personals ad for sex, his “ready response” acknowledged her age and asked if she wanted to meet that day. Also, his reluctance to engage in sexually explicit conversation may be evidence of a misguided attempt to avoid incriminating himself, not necessarily evidence of his non-predisposition to violate § 2422(b). 

The sentencing enhancement was not plain error: The Court ruled it was not plain error to apply a two-level sentencing enhancement for misrepresenting age and sexual orientation to influence a minor to engage in sexual conduct. See U.S.S.G. § 2G1.3(b)(2)(A) (enhancement when conduct involves knowing misrepresentation of a participant’s identity to . . . induce the travel of a minor to engage in prohibited sexual conduct). It did not matter that Davis ultimately corrected the misrepresentation of his age if he lied about it in an effort to make the minor feel comfortable. His objection to the enhancement based on a lie about sexual orientation failed under plain error because the government’s theory was reasonable: he misrepresented his sexual orientation to assure the minor he was not a sexual threat in his continued effort to meet her.

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The District Court's indication of the sentence it would impose before the defendant allocuted was not reversible plain error.

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