Friday, October 20th, 2006

Bad Crimes Make Bad Law: Circuit Misreads Rule 404(b) and Uses Junk Science to Link Possession of Child Porn to Actual Illicit Sex

United States v. Brand, Docket No. 05-4155-cr (2d Cir. Oct. 19, 2006) (Miner, Wesley, Friedman): It appears that child sex cases have surpassed drug cases in their ability to create bad law and erode civil liberties. We saw in last year’s “Candyman” cases an erosion of the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirement; in Brand, we see the Circuit (1) greatly expand the scope of evidence admissible under Rule 404, in contravention of well-settled law; and (2) conclude based on junk science (or, simply, ungrounded assumptions) that possession of images of child sex constitutes proof of a person’s predisposition to commit actual child sex. One almost wishes that these kiddie-sex cases would disappear solely because of the misguided law they leave in their wake. (Disclosure: Colleen Cassidy of this Office litigated the case on appeal).

Brand is a New Jersey voice teacher in his late 30s. He engaged in chat-room (and then phone) conversations with — you guessed it — an FBI agent posing as a 13-year-old girl. The chats began innocently, with talk of voice lessons and hand-holding, but eventually turned to sexual activity — a subject matter admittedly initiated by the Government agent / liaison. Op. 26. Brand ultimately arranged to meet the faux teen at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, whereupon he encountered instead several FBI agents and their handcuffs. A later search of Brand’s NJ residence found some child porn on his computer, though most of it had been deleted or resided in temporary cache files. Brand was indicted for (1) traveling across state lines with the intent to engage in sex with the faux teen, in violation of 18 USC § 2423(b), and (2) using the internet to entice said agent-teen into engaging in illicit sexual activity, in violation of 18 USC § 2422(b). He was not charged with possessing porn (likely for venue reasons).

Brand’s principal defense at trial was entrapment, though he also argued that the evidence was insufficient to show that he had the requisite mens rea. Over objection, the district court admitted, inter alia, (1) sixteen images of child porn found on his computer under Rule 404(b) to show “intent”, and (2) many more images of child porn to demonstrate that Brand was “predisposed” to commit the charged offenses. He was convicted and appealed.

We focus on two particularly troubling aspects of the decision affirming Brand’s conviction.

First, the Court upholds the 404(b) ruling on the ground that Brand’s possession of the porn had a “similarity or some connection” to the charged acts. Op. 30, quoting United States v. Garcia, 291 F.3d 127, 136 (2d Cir. 2002). And “some connection” between the two exists, the Court explains, “because a direct connection exists between child pornography and pedophilia” as a general, social-science conclusion. Op.31. To support this “finding,” the Court cites (1) a Fifth Circuit case holding that in a prosecution for porn possession, the defendant’s prior acts of pedophilia were relevant (i.e., the reverse of the situation here), and (2) a Congressional “finding” in this regard, based on (surely unbiased) testimony from an FBI agent. We’ll address this odd “fact-finding” by the Circuit below.

For 404(b) purposes, the Court’s principal error is its misuse of Garcia. There, the Circuit ruled that other-crimes evidence offered to show intent to commit the charged crime must involve misconduct very similar to, or was connected with, the misdeed for which the defendant is being tried. Indeed, Garcia ruled that the district court there abused its discretion in allowing evidence of a prior conviction (involving possession of a small amount of drugs) in Garcia’s trial for conspiring to distribute a large quantity of drugs to show intent, since the acts were not connected or sufficiently similar.

In Brand, the Court seizes upon the “some connection” language from Garcia to uphold the admission of the 404(b) evidence, but in a manner totally divorced from the original context. It is clear from Garcia that by “some connection,” the Court meant that the prior act was literally linked to the charged act — e.g., because of an overlap of participants, similarity in modus operandi, and so on. Here, in contrast, the Court claims that the “some connection” requirement is satisfied because of its own “fact-finding” that possessing child porn was linked, as a social-science matter, to committing actual sex crimes against children. As the Court states, “The ‘similarity or some connection’ requirement is satisfied in the instant case because a direct connection exists between child pornography and pedophilia.” Op. 31. In support, it cites the aforementioned 5th Circuit case, as well as FBI testimony before Congress. Op. 31-32.

This is seriously misguided. First, as mentioned, Brand misreads Garcia‘s “some connection” requirement for 404(b) evidence offered on intent. The connection required by that earlier decision was not the pseudo-scientific link between possessing child porn and actual pedophilia, as a general matter, recited by the Court, but rather a specific connection between the particular defendant’s earlier act and the particular defendant’s charged act. Second, under Brand‘s construal of the “some connection” requirement, there seems nothing left of Rule 404’s anti-propensity principle: What difference is there between what the Court allows in Brand and simply using the prior porn possession as propensity evidence? None, so far as we can see.

Finally, perhaps the oddest aspect of this ruling is the Court’s fact-finding of a connection, based on bad science, between possessing porn and committing sex crimes on actual children. Where, exactly, does Rule 404(b) call for such a fact finding — and by a court of appeals, no less? None of this “evidence” was apparently before the district court; at the least, the district court made no such findings of a “direct connection” between, generally, possessing sexually explicit images of children and committing sex crimes on real children.

The Court’s related conclusion that evidence of Brand’s porn possession was admissible to show that he was predisposed to committing crimes against actual children is similarly flawed. E.g., Op. 36 (“Both Congress and at least one other court have concluded that possession of child pornography signals abnormal sexual attraction to children.”). But in addition, this conclusion is flawed because it operates at too high a level of generality. Surely, e.g., any prior misconduct by the defendant “signals abnormal willingness to violate the law”; yet does that justify the admission of any prior misconduct to show predisposition for a particular crime? No, of course, for to answer otherwise would contradict the Circuit’s decision in United States v. Harvey, 991 F.2d 981, 994 (2d Cir. 1993), requiring predisposition evidence to be evidence of “past conduct … ‘near enough in kind to support an inference that his purpose included offenses of the sort charged'”.

To say that possession of porn predisposed Brand to engage in actual sex acts with actual children because both involved “abnormal sexual attraction to children” begs the question. The real issue in discerning whether predisposition exists in a case where Government inducement has been shown, as here, is whether there is evidence that the defendant previously committed acts sufficiently similar to the one for which he is charged as to support an inference that the defendant would have committed the charged act in the absence of inducement. And to say that possessing images of activity X predisposes one to commit activity X goes way too far in this regard.

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