Articles Posted in Internet Crimes

Lawyers that specialize in defending federal criminal cases may be interested to know that the federal sentencing commission recently released a document entitled: “Selected Post-Booker and Guideline Application Decisions for the Eleventh Circuit”. According to the Commission, “[t]he document is not a substitute for reading and interpreting the actual Guidelines Manual or researching specific sentencing issues.” However, those of you that practice federal criminal law in Georgia, Alabama and Florida will find the document useful, because it does contain helpful “annotations to certain Eleventh Circuit judicial opinions that involve issues related to the federal sentencing guidelines.”

I reviewed the document this morning and it is a fairly comprehensive. It not only includes case annotations dealing with many of the more common guideline provisions (including fraud, internet, and immigration offenses), but it also includes several sections that involve general principles of federal sentencing law, such as burden of proof issues, the requirements for sentencing on acquitted conduct, and departures and variances.

The document can be found here and for those of you that practice in other federal circuits, links to similar documents for those other circuits can be found here.

As we discussed in this post last year, federal judges have increasingly spoken out against the unreasonable sentencing guidelines regarding child pornography. In the last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in U.S. v. Grober, upholding a dramatic downward departure in a child pornography case, and a district judge in the Middle District of Florida issued an opinion in U.S. v. Irey reacting to the Eleventh Circuit’s reversal of his initial sentence in the case.

In Grober, the Court affirmed a 60-month sentence where the applicable guidelines range was 235 to 293 months. District Judge Katharine Hayden held hearings over 12 days to explore how the sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses had gotten so harsh, eventually concluding that they are unworkable and unfair. This Tuesday, the Third Circuit held, 2-1, that the imposed sentence was not an abuse of discretion. That opinion is discussed extensively in this Legal Intelligencer article.

In recent years, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed below-guidelines sentences in child porn cases in both U.S. v. McBride and U.S. v. Gray. However, this July the Court decided Irey, an unfortunate case with incredibly disturbing underlying facts. We discussed Irey in this post, lamenting that hard facts often lead to bad law. In that case, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a 17 ½ year sentence, ordering that the defendant be sentenced to the guidelines range on remand, which was 30 years. This week, District Judge Gregory Presnell issued a lengthy opinion with his postponement of resentencing pending Supreme Court review, questioning the circuit court’s usurpation of his discretion. As Professor Berman of the Sentencing Law & Policy Blog notes here, this opinion seems to serve as a de facto amicus brief in support of an as-yet-unfiled petition for certiorari.

On Friday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Lee. The Court held affirmed Mr. Lee’s convictions, holding that his communications with a “mother” of minors, absent any travel arrangements, were sufficient evidence of attempting to entice a minor. Judge Martin filed a vigorous dissent, arguing that the evidence failed to support that Mr. Lee took a substantial step toward that crime. She concurred with the majority in affirming Mr. Lee’s other federal criminal convictions.

Mr. Lee communicated with a postal inspector who was posing as a mother of two minor girls. He never communicated with anyone claiming to be a minor, although he asked the “mother” to share information and photographs with her daughters and requested photos in return. He discussed meeting them in general terms, but at one point noted that their first meeting would be as friends. He never made travel arrangements.

Judge Martin declared her “concern that the majority opinion does not clearly demarcate despicable but lawful talk from a criminal attempt punishable by up to 30 years in prison.” While the interaction was “disturbing,” no evidence showed that Mr. Lee took any steps to extend his relationship beyond his home. His actions should not count as a “substantial step toward enticing a child to engage in illicit sexual conduct.” For that reason, Judge Martin would have vacated the attempt conviction.

Ed. Note: Next week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2009 Amendments to the federal Sentencing Guidelines will go into effect. Once a week for the next month, we will post an analysis of some of the more important changes to the Guidelines. The Sentencing Commission’s reader-friendly guide to the 2009 amendments is available here.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has changed the federal Sentencing Guidelines in a number of ways relating to sex crimes. These changes will go into effect this Sunday, November 1, 2009. The amendments address a circuit split regarding an enhancement for undue influence of a minor, resulting in a positive change in Eleventh Circuit law, as well as changes to the child pornography and human trafficking guidelines.

Undue Influence Amendments

A new federal criminal law directed at online pharmacies went into effect in April. We have represented many targets and potential targets of investigations and prosecutions involving these types of online pharmacies, as well as other drug prosecutions. Recent Internet drug sale laws may encompass more behavior than the primary reasons for their enactment.

The Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act makes it illegal to distribute controlled substances that are prescription drugs over the Internet without a valid prescription or to advertise for such distribution. “Valid prescription” is defined as “a prescription that is issued for a legitimate medical purpose in the usual course of professional practice” by a practitioner who has evaluated the patient in person at least once or, if that practitioner is unavailable and has evaluated the patient in-person within the past year, then a practitioner whom he requests to evaluate the patient. The Act also permits states to sue online pharmacies and imposes registration and reporting requirements on certain online pharmacies.

The primary function of the Act is to address online pharmacies, which deliver controlled substances by means of the Internet. Its chief provisions amend 21 U.S.C. Section 841, a part of the Controlled Substances Act that lists illegal conduct and penalties. The new law is targeted at people and entities such as doctors, pharmacists and pharmacies, and web site owners involved with online pharmacies that issue and fill prescriptions for controlled substances based solely on completion of online medical questionnaires. It is not expressly limited to online pharmacies, however, or to the types of targets listed. Federal prosecutors may use this law against anyone who delivers, distributes, or dispenses a controlled substance by means of the Internet, or helps someone do so, without authorization.

A couple of weeks ago, the federal Supreme Court decided a criminal case, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, holding that the admission of crime lab reports requires the forensic analysts to testify in person. The Georgia Supreme Court adopted the same rule in 1996 for state criminal cases brought here in Georgia and we are pleased that it will now apply in federal criminal cases, as well as in other states that didn’t previously have the rule.

Justice Scalia, a strong defender of the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause, wrote the majority opinion in Melendez-Diaz. The basic idea of the Confrontation Clause is that people have the right to be confronted with witnesses against them so they have a chance to defend themselves against the charges. In Crawford v. Washington, the Court held that testimonial statements against a defendant are inadmissible unless the witness appears at trial or, if the witness is unavailable, the defendant has had a prior opportunity for cross-examination. In this case, Scalia explained that the crime lab reports were affidavits, which fall within the “core class of testimonial statements” covered by the Confrontation Clause and addressed in Crawford. For that reason, the analysts making the statements must appear at trial.

The dissent argued that forensic evidence is uniquely reliable compared to other types of testimony and that cross-examination of the analysts would be empty formalism. To most people who watch TV shows like CSI, this argument has merit – scientific evidence seems indisputable. But not all forensic analysts are as intelligent and well-educated as Gil Grissom. The Court noted that “[s]erious deficiencies have been found in the forensic evidence used in criminal trials… One study of cases in which exonerating evidence resulted in the overturning of criminal convictions concluded that invalid forensic testimony contributed to the convictions in 60% of the cases.” Confrontation will help assure accurate forensic analysis by weeding out both fraudulent and incompetent analysts.

In a federal criminal case involving an internet sex crime, a federal judge recently ruled that the phrase “minor victim” does not include an undercover detective posing as a minor. The decision in the case interpreted provisions of the recently-enacted Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, as well as a previous Act.

As part of the Adam Walsh Act, Congress amended the Bail Reform Act by establishing that for certain offenses involving a “minor victim”, defendants should not be released on bail unless they are subjected to electronic monitoring and a host of other mandatory conditions. In addition, in an Act which predated the Adam Walsh Act, Congress amended the Bail Reform Act by creating a rebuttable presumption in favor of detention for certain enumerated offenses involving a “minor victim”. In many cases, these two provisions, particularly the latter one, make it virtually impossible to secure the release of an individual facing a federal internet-based sex charge.

This recent decision, however, appears to provide some hope for those individuals. In United States v. Kahn, the federal magistrate judge presiding over the matter pointed out that Congress failed to define the phrase “minor victim” in either the Adam Walsh Act or the Bail Reform Act. Accordingly, based on fundamental principles of statutory interpretation, the court interpreted the phrase in accordance with its plain meaning. Significantly, based on such an interpretation, the court concluded that “the plain meaning of the term ‘minor victim’ does not encompass the undercover detective or her fictitous thirteen year-old daughter.” I anticipate that the Government will appeal this decision and this issue of statutory interpretation will be an interesting one to follow as it develops further.

Earlier this month, the Pensacola News Journal reported that a federal prosecutor who was charged with an internet based sex crime committed suicide by hanging himself inside his cell at a federal detention facility. In recent years, those of us who engage in the defense of individuals charged with federal crimes have literally witnessed an explosion in the number of internet based crimes that are being prosecuted at both the federal and state level. In my view, this tragic situation involving the federal prosecutor from Pensacola highlights the overwhelming stress that typically accompanies any internet based federal charge.

From what Paul Kish and I have seen, in cases like this, the individual often has strong community ties, a supportive family, and no criminal history or prior encounters with law enforcement. However, several years ago, Congress created a rebuttable presumption in favor of detention for certain internet-based federal crimes. For this reason, in cases like this (and in any case in which the Government moves for detention), it is important for defense counsel to get to up to speed as quickly as possible so that he can be prepared to address the issues that arise during a detention hearing.

In addition to the obvious stress that one encounters upon the initiation of a federal charge, the potential penalties that one may face if convicted can certainly add tremendously to the stress level. In recent years, Congress has not only increased the number of federally-based internet crimes, but it has also substantially increased the sentences that are often associated with certain crimes. For instance, in connection with the enactment of the Adam Walsh Act, Congress increased the mandatory minimum penalty associated with one of the charges the Pensacola federal prosecutor was facing to thirty years.