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Child Pornography and “Substantive Reasonableness”

In a decision that could have a wide-ranging effect on people convicted of child pornography offenses, the Second Circuit last month struck down a 225-month sentence imposed on a man convicted of having illegal material on his laptops and a thumb drive as he tried to drive into Canada. Joseph Jacobs was 39 years old and headed to his parents’ vacation home in Quebec when Canadian officials stopped him. He failed to show up for court in Canada, so charges were brought in the U.S. for “transporting” his personal collection of child pornography, which carries a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. Other than that, his conduct was not remarkable: there was no evidence he produced child pornography, shared illegal photos, used a file sharing system, or tried to solicit a child. What he did do, though, was annoy the sentencing judge. He testified at his own trial and lied, then was rude and obnoxious at the sentencing hearing, showing no empathy for the victims or regard for the legal system.

Still, the appeals court said that a sentence near the statutory maximum was far too high in these circumstances: “A sentence of 225 months for a first-time offender who never spoke to, much less approached or touched, a child or transmitted explicit images to anybody is unreasonable.” The opinion provided several reasons for the panel’s decision which could be used in other cases. It noted Jacobs was already 39 at the time of the crime and that recidivism is lower in offenders that old, as compared to younger offenders. It provided statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showing that 225 months was longer than almost all child pornography possession sentences. It reiterated the holdings and reasoning of U.S. v. Dorvee, which had found that the main sentencing guideline for child pornography was “irrational” and “eccentric” because its many enhancements (“specific offense characteristics” in Guidelines terms) were present in virtually every case. It noted that since Dorvee, that concern had only become stronger because the Sentencing Commission had since “effectively disavowed” the flawed guideline and “the latest statistics on the application of sentencing enhancements confirm that the enhancements Jenkins received under this Guideline are all-but-inherent.”

These are powerful words coming from the appeals court that oversees all sentencing in the Southern and Eastern District of New York. Throwing out a sentence based on “substantive reasonableness” is rare — it happened last year in another child pornography case, but that was a summary order with little precedential weight. People facing sentencing on child pornography charges would be well advised to carefully consider the arguments presented by the panel in U.S. v. Jacobs and apply them to their own cases.

Second Circuit Strikes Down Unreasonable Child Pornography Sentence