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Media Alerts - USA v. Handerhan - Third Circuit
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January 8, 2014
  USA v. Handerhan - Third Circuit
Headline: 96 month sentence not substantively or procedurally unfair in child pornography case

Area of Law: Procedure, sentencing

Issues Presented: Whether the district court's sentence of 96 months imprisonment for possession of child pornography was procedurally and substantively unreasonable.

Brief Summary: Handerhan argued that his sentence of 96 months for possession of child pornography was substantively and procedurally unfair because the court did not explicitly rule on his request for a downward variance, did not sufficiently consider the §3553(a)factors, and that no reasonable court would have imposed the sentence of 96 months. The Third Circuit determined that the district court used its discretion to deny the downward variance requested and thus the court had no jurisdiction to review that decision, even though the district court failed to explicitly rule on the request. The court also determined that the sentence was not procedurally unfair because the district court appropriately considered the §3553(a) factors. The sentencing was not substantially unreasonable because there was no evidence that no other court would have imposed this sentence. The judgment of the district court was affirmed.

Significance (if any):

Extended Summary: This case centered on Handerhan's conviction and sentence for possession of child pornography. Handerhan was in possession of more than 6,000 images and video files of child pornography, including images of prepubescent children and depictions of violence. He used a file sharing program to distribute some of it. Handerhan pled guilty to a single count of possession of child pornography in exchange for dismissal of distribution charges and a recommendation that he receive a three level reduction for the acceptance of responsibility. The sentencing was set at 120 months however Handerhan requested that the court apply a downward departure , arguing that the 120 month sentence was unreasonable in light of factors laid out in 18 U.S.C. §3553(a) because he suffered from a mental health condition and had taken measures to rehabilitate himself. After hearing arguments from both sides, the District Court acknowledged that Handerhan was seeking help for his problem and that a variance could be granted in this case and, considering all the factors, set the sentence at 96 months. Handerhan appealed arguing that the sentence was substantively and procedurally unreasonable.

The court reviewed the decision for abuse of discretion. Handerhan argued that the District Court failed to formally rule on the motions of the parties; failed to state on the record whether it was granting a departure and how that affected the calculations; and failed to engage in a true exercise of discretion including a recognition of and response to parties' arguments. The Third Circuit noted that it is usually required that a district court state expressly whether the denial of the departure request was based on legal or discretionary grounds. A denial based on legal grounds is reviewable but one based on discretion is not. While the district court was not explicit in stating the grounds, the Third Circuit inferred from the government's arguments about exercise of discretion, that the district court's determination was discretionary and thus the Third Circuit lacked jurisdiction to review the denial of the request for a downward variance. The court further determined that the District Court gave meaningful consideration to the relevant §3553(a) factors because it took into account the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant as well as the need for the sentence imposed in light of the defendant's and society's interests. The District Court also looked at the kinds of sentences and the sentencing range established as well as the need to avoid sentencing disparities among defendants with similar records found guilty of similar offenses.

The Third Circuit found no procedural error even though the district court failed to formally rule on the motion for downward variance based on flaws in the sentencing guidelines. The Third Circuit noted that the District Court acknowledged that some of the sentencing may be harsh however it decided that the totality of the circumstances in this case justified the penalty with a downgrade variance of 24 months based on Handerhan's mental health issues.

The court also found the sentence was not substantively unreasonable. A sentence will be affirmed as substantively reasonable unless no reasonable sentencing court would have imposed the same sentence for the same reasons. The facts of the case - that the defendant was a police officer and knew the images were illegal, that he sought treatment only after his arrest, and that he shared the images - supported imposition of the sentence. In addition, the sentence was presumptively reasonable as it was within the range of the advisory Guidelines. The court found no facts to suggest that another court would not impose a similar sentence and thus it was upheld as being substantively reasonable.

The Third Circuit, while affirming the District Court's decision, did make it clear that it would prefer to not have to infer that the district court was using its discretion and that such decisions should be made explicit.

To read the full opinion, please visit

Panel (if known): Rendell, Jordan, and Greenaway, Jr., Circuit Judges

Argument Date: September 11, 2013

Argument Location:

Date of Issued Opinion: January 7, 2014

Docket Number: No. 12-3500

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Cheri Snook

Counsel: James T. Clancy, Esq., for appellee; Philip Gelso, Esq., Marissa A. McAndrew, Esq., Matthew R. Gover, Esq., Brian W. Perry, Esq., for appellant

Author of Opinion: Judge Greenaway Jr.

Circuit: 3rd Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 01/08/2014 02:28 PM     3rd Circuit  

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