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April 30, 2015
  United States v. Helton -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Measured Humanity in Sentencing: Fourth Circuit Praises District Court's Downward Departure from Sentencing Guidelines for Child Pornography Possessor

Areas of Law: Criminal Law; Sentencing Guidelines

Issue Presented: Whether, considering the sensitive facts of this case, a lifetime term of supervised release was procedurally and substantively reasonable for a possession of child pornography conviction.

Brief Summary: In 2010, a member of the West Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, determined a computer near Buckley, West Virginia contained several videos of child pornography. With assistance from the FBI, the task force identified the subscriber's IP address and executed a search warrant on Barbie Helton's residence, which she shared with her nineteen-year-old son Stephen. Several files containing child pornography were found on Stephen Helton's personal computer. Helton was taken into custody and advised of his rights before making a statement to law enforcement. He explained that he regularly viewed adult and child pornography, which was confirmed when forensic investigators found a total of 961 individual images of child pornography; only 42 were actively accessible for viewing at the time of the search. Helton pled guilty to one count of "knowing possession of child pornography" and proceeded to sentencing. The Presentence Investigation Report recommended a Guidelines range of 78 to 97 months imprisonment based on the total offense level of 28. After listening to argument and the defendant's own statement, the district court sentenced Helton to a term of 60 months imprisonment, a significant downward departure from the Guidelines range, and a lifetime term of supervised release. The district judge made clear that when considering sentencing, the length of the prison term and length of the supervised released were linked; she was only comfortable with the downward sentencing departure because she knew the defendant would be subjected to lifetime supervised release. Helton appealed, arguing the term of lifetime supervised release imposed in his case was unreasonable.

The Unites Stated Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed and lauded the district court's sentencing determination. The appellate court reviews a district court's sentencing determination for reasonableness, which includes both substantive and procedural components. The court noted that the scope of sentencing discretion is broad and is largely unlimited in terms of the types and sources of information considered. In this case, the district judge weighed Helton's lengthy history of viewing child pornography, his admittedly repetitive pattern of downloading material, deleting it and seeking more. The sentencing court also considered the fact the defendant admitted to being physically and sexually abused; admitted to sexually abusing a three-year-old child while he was thirteen-years old and in foster care; and unsuccessfully sought help for his compulsion. Finally, the facts that the defendant suffered from drug and alcohol abuse and had no prior criminal record were also noted.

In a separate concurring opinion, Judge Gregory commended the district court's exercise of discretion but criticized the Child Pornography Sentencing guideline. Judge Gregory noted, "we measure humanity by the justice we mete to those thought least deserving." He pointed out that the Child Pornography Guideline was fashioned by Congress, and not by the Sentencing Commission using its expertise and discretion. In fact, the Sentencing Commission has repeatedly asked for authority to change the guideline, because over time, it has become an "eccentric Guideline . . . which, unless carefully applied, can easily generate unreasonable results." The provided enhancements do very little to distinguish between offenders, thereby sentencing less culpable offenders as severely as the most egregious offenders. Judge Gregory cautioned that in light of those facts, the Child Pornography Guideline should not serve as a starting point for determining a reasonable sentence. Although he disapproved of Helton's lifetime supervision, Judge Gregory did state that the district judge in this matter did an admirable job when crafting Helton's individualized sentence.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Wilkinson, Gregory and Duncan

Argument Date: 12/11/2014

Date of Issued Opinion: 04/2/2015

Docket Number: No. 13-4412

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Alexandra A. Stulpin, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

ARGUED: Jonathan D. Byrne, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant. Lisa Grimes Johnston, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Mary Lou Newberger, Federal Public Defender, David R. Bungard, Assistant Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant. R. Booth Goodwin II, United States Attorney, William B. King, II, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Wilkinson; Judge Gregory wrote a separate concurring opinion.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/30/2015 10:01 AM     4th Circuit  

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