Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Circuit Upholds Ten-Year Mandatory Minimum Sentence for Child Pornography Offender

United States v. Lockhart, No. 13-0602-cr (2d Cir. May 15, 2014) (Katzmann, Straub, and Lohier), available here

This appeal required the Court to decide the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), which mandates a ten-year minimum term of imprisonment for a defendant who possesses child pornography and was previously convicted “under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” Specifically, does the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modify only “abusive sexual conduct,” such that a prior sexual abuse conviction involving an adult victim constitutes a qualifying predicate offense?

The Circuit said yes, and affirmed the defendant’s ten-year sentence. [Disclosure: Federal Defenders of New York, Inc., represents Mr. Lockhart.]

Lockhart pled guilty to possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B), which ordinarily carries no mandatory minimum sentence. But he had previously been convicted in a New York State court of first-degree sexual abuse involving his adult girlfriend. The district court found that this prior conviction related to “aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” and therefore triggered a mandatory minimum ten-year sentence under 18 U.S.C. §  2252(b)(2). The court rejected Lockhart’s argument that his prior conviction did not trigger the mandatory minimum because his sexual abuse offense did not involve a minor or ward.

The Circuit affirmed. After determining that the plain meaning of the statute was unclear, the Court employed familiar tools of statutory interpretation, including canons, statutory structure, and legislative history, to discern the statute’s meaning. Ultimately, the Court decided that the government had the better of the argument, and that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modifies only prior state convictions for “abusive sexual conduct,” not those for “sexual abuse” or “aggravated sexual abuse.” The Court acknowledged, however, that “the Sixth, Eighth and Tenth Circuits have reached the opposite conclusion, namely, that the phrase ‘involving a minor or ward’ modifies all three categories of state sexual abuse crimes.”

Given this apparent conflict in the Circuits, will the Supreme Court step in and settle the matter? Stay tuned….

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