Failure to group certain counts as required by the Sentencing Guidelines is plain error requiring resentencing even if the sentencing court imposed a downward variance
The defendant pled guilty to five child-pornography crimes: three counts of production, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a), (e); one count of receipt, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2), (b)(1); and one count of possession, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B), (b)(2). At sentencing, without objection, the District Court adopted the P.S.R.’s calculation of the Sentencing Guidelines. After it imposed a downward variance to offense level 42, reducing the Guidelines sentence from 360 months to life to 360 months, the District Court imposed a sentence of 360 months.
The Sentencing Guidelines require that the production counts be grouped with the receipt and possession counts according to U.S.S.G. § 3D1.2(c)— all counts involving substantially the same harm must be grouped. Counts involving “substantially the same harm” when one of the counts embodies conduct treated as a specific offense characteristic in, or other adjustments to, the guideline applicable to another of the counts must be grouped for calculation purposes. A “pattern enhancement” is imposed under the Sentencing Guidelines under U.S.S.G. §2G2.2(b)(5) if the offender engages in a pattern of activity involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor. If the District Court had properly grouped the production counts when computing the offense level, the offense level would have been 42 rather than 43.
Third Circuit precedent, United States v Ketcham, 80 F.3d 789, 794 (3d Cir. 1996) required grouping of the production counts in this case. The panel rejected the government’s argument that Ketchum’sholding about grouping was dicta.
Conducting a plain-error analysis, the panel looked to the holding in Molina-Martinez v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1338, 1345 (2016) that regardless of the ultimate sentence, being sentenced under the wrong guidelines range satisfies the third prong of plain-error review. As the defendant met the first two prongs of plain-error review— that there was an error and it was plain— resentencing was ordered.
Congrats to Abigail Horn & Brett Swetzer of the EDPa Federal Defenders for a nice win.
N.B. fd.org has great resources for all sorts of sentencing issues and should be consulted whenever reviewing a P.S.R.’s sentencing calculations. The United States Sentencing Commission website also allows the download of the current Sentencing Guidelines and updates. It also offers a Guidelines calculator, which, when used in tandem with the fd.org materials, helps untangle federal criminal law’s version of the uncertainty principle