News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit limits the unit of prosecution for child pornography possession offenses

Holding: Multiple devices ≠ multiple counts: child pornography discovered at the same time, and in the same place, is a single offense, regardless of how many devices that material is stored on.

This fall, the Tenth Circuit limited the number of charges the government can bring for possessing child pornography, at least where that material is discovered at the same time and same place.

In United States v. Elliott, 937 F.3d 1310 (10th Cir. 2019), the defendant was charged with four possession counts, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B), which penalizes “possess[ing]” . . . any . . . material that contains an image of child pornography.”  The charges were based on child pornography discovered on a computer, external hard drive, phone, and cloud storage account linked to the phone.  All the items were located in the defendant’s bedroom during execution of a search warrant.

The government’s theory was that it could charge on a “per device” basis, i.e., that every device on which child pornography was located constituted a separate offense.  The defendant argued that this charging theory was multiplicitous: that it imposed multiple punishments for the same offense of simply possessing child pornography.

To answer the question, the court of appeals had to determine what the unit of prosecution was for § 2252A.  This is an inquiry of statutory interpretation—the unit of prosecution is the minimum amount of activity a defendant must undertake to commit each new and independent violation of a criminal statute. 

Ultimately, the Tenth Circuit held that § 2252A(a)(5)(B) does not permit multiple possession charges based solely on the number of electronic devices a defendant simultaneously possessed. That means that child pornography discovered at the same time, and in the same place, is a single offense, regardless of how many devices that material is stored on.  And because multiplicity is never harmless error, the Elliott court vacated all but one the defendant’s possession convictions.

Open question: whether the government might be able to sustain multiple possession charges with proof that a defendant received the child pornography at different times, or stored it in entirely separate locations.

Key takeaways.

  • Be on the lookout for multiplicity.  Whenever an indictment charges multiple violations of the same statute, be sure to ask what the unit of prosecution is for that statute.  If it is unclear, query whether lenity may apply.  Elliott and the Tenth Circuit’s en banc decision in United States v. Rentz, 777 F.3d 1105 (10th Cir. 2015) are good places to start your research.
  • Don’t let other circuits’ decisions prevent you from making novel arguments.  Here, the Fifth Circuit previously had accepted the government’s “per device” charging theory, and at least four other circuits had suggested in dicta that such charging might be permissible.  The Tenth Circuit found none of this authority persuasive in ruling the other way.
  • The unit of prosecution for child pornography possession under § 2252 is an open question, but it should be the same as § 2252A.  There are two federal statutes that independently criminalize possessing child pornography:  18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B) and § 2252(a)(4)(B).  And while § 2252 is charged less frequently, it still shows up from time to time.  Elliott’s analysis applies only to § 2252A, but its discussion of § 2252 and the slight difference in wording between the two statutes should be helpful in arguing that the unit of prosecution under of § 2252 is the same as § 2252A.

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit holds special condition of supervised release banning internet use, unless preapproved by probation, is greater deprivation of liberty than necessary under 18 U.S.C.§ 3583(d)

Individuals convicted of child pornography offenses in the District of Colorado have typically been subject to a special condition of supervised release aimed at controlling their internet use; it states: “The defendant’s use of computers and Internet access devices must be limited to those the defendant requests to use, and which the probation officer authorizes.” This condition essentially prevents individuals on supervised release from using any computer or “Internet access device” by default, unless and until their probation officer gives them permission to do so—and there’s nothing to say that probation ever has to give them permission.

This week, in United States v. Blair, the Tenth Circuit, over a dissent by Judge Baldock, held this condition is a greater deprivation of liberty than reasonably necessary under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d) because “it allows the probation office to completely ban the defendant’s use of the internet by failing to place any restraints on a probation officer’s ability to restrict a defendant’s Internet access.” 2019 WL 379368, at *1.  Notably, the majority reached its decision, notwithstanding arguably aggravating factors about Mr. Blair’s offense, which were highlighted by the dissent.

The Tenth Circuit held: “the special condition would prohibit [Mr. Blair’s] use of a computer for benign activities, such as writing a novel or checking the weather, without first obtaining permission from his probation officer.” Id. at *6. Moreover, the condition gives the probation office “unfettered discretion” to decide when to lift the ban—without anything to “suggest[] that the probation office [would] allow Blair any reasonable use of the internet.” Id. at *6-7.  The Tenth Circuit vacated the special condition and remanded to the district court with instructions to “amend the special condition of supervised release to bring it into compliance with the demands of [18 U.S.C.] sections 3553 and 3583.”

So how is the district court supposed to bring this special condition into compliance with the sentencing and supervised released statutes?  The Tenth Circuit has some ideas.

The probation officer is “limited to imposing only those restrictions that are reasonably calculated to prevent the defendant from using a computer or the Internet to access, store, produce, or send child pornography in any form; to provide necessary restrictions to facilitate a defendant’s correctional treatment so that he may be rehabilitated; and to protect the public from any further crimes of the defendant.” Id. at *8-9. The Court further indicated that a district court would have to find “extraordinary circumstances” existed in order to justify a “blanket or total ban” on internet usage, which nobody had argued applied in Mr. Blair’s case. Id. at *9 n.6.

Takeaways

  •  No categorical internet/computer bans. The district court cannot ban defendants—including those convicted of possessing child pornography—from using the internet or computers, absent extraordinary facts not present in the typical case. Nor can a district court order a condition that allows probation to impose such a ban. Rather, any restriction on internet or computer use has to be tailored to preventing further child pornography crimes or facilitating the defendant’s rehabilitation.
  • Challenge overbroad conditions of supervised release at sentencing.
    • The law is on our side to assert this challenge at sentencing.  As the Tenth Circuit explains in Blair: “Although district courts have broad discretion to prescribe conditions on supervised release…that discretion is limited by 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d) and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).”
    • The government’s argument that it’s better to wait until defendant is actually on supervision didn’t go anywhere with the court of appeals.  The Tenth Circuit rejects out of hand the government’s suggestion “that the proper time for [a defendant] to raise his desire to use computers and the Internet for harmless purposes is down the road when he meets with his probation officer and discovers how the probation office intends to enforce the condition.” Id. at *8. After all, the prohibition on overbroad conditions contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3583 “directly govern[s] the district court’s obligations in imposing the supervised release conditions” at sentencing. Id.
    •  Another reminder that preservation matters.  Trial counsel objected to the internet-use ban in the district court, clearing the path for a meaningful victory in the court of appeals.
  • Overly restrictive conditions matter because violating them could result in  more prison time. As the Tenth Circuit acknowledges in a footnote, people have gone to prison for violating overbroad conditions of supervised release in seemingly innocuous ways—such as by checking their email or logging into Facebook. see id. at *8 n.5. By paying attention to these issues at sentencing, you may be able to save your client some jail time down the road.
  •  Don’t be scared away by an appellate waiver – make sure it bars your issue before assuming otherwise.  Mr. Blair signed a plea agreement with an appeal waiver, but it was unenforceable here, allowing the appeal to proceed.  As the Tenth Circuit noted, the government conceded that “this appeal falls outside the scope of the waiver” because Blair received a sentence based on an offense level higher than that anticipated by the agreement.