Wednesday, November 01, 2017

26-month CP Sentence Substantively Unreasonable

US v. Zuk: Zuk began collecting and sharing child pornography while in high school, then continued when he began college. As part of his involvement with CP, he corresponded with a 16-year old in Texas who was sexually abusing his 5-year old cousin. Among other things, Zuk had this person produce CP images of the cousin as his specific request. Eventually, Zuk was charged with multiple counts related to CP, including possession, receiving, and distributing. Pursuant to a plea agreement, he pled to one count of possession. Although his advisory Guideline range was 324 to 405 months, his plea capped his statutory maximum at 240 months, with no mandatory minimum. After a two-day sentencing hearing, which included testimony from multiple experts on Zuk's mental issues and potential for treatment, the district court imposed a sentence of time served (26 months) and a lifetime term of supervised release "contingent on his successful completion of [a] residential treatment program."

The Government appealed and the Fourth Circuit vacated Zuk's sentence.

First, the court concluded that the Government could, in fact, appeal the sentence. Zuk waived his right to appeal on any grounds other than ineffective assistance of counsel, which he argued meant that the Government had "implicitly" waived similar rights. However, in this plea agreement the Government explicitly reserved its appeal rights. The court found there was no great asymmetry in this, as the Government gave up a lot (dismissing the other charges, all of which included mandatory minimums higher than the sentence Zuk received). That distinguished this case from one where the plea agreement was silent on the Government's appeal rights.

Second, the court concluded that Zuk's sentence was substantively unreasonable. That was primarily because the district court "focused almost entirely on Zuk's autism spectrum" diagnosis. That was particularly problematic because the record didn't support a conclusion that Zuk's condition caused his criminal behavior (he admitted, when caught, that he knew what he was doing was illegal). That was a legitimate consideration in determining sentence, but couldn't be the driving factor. In addition, Zuk's sentence created serious issues of disparity with similarly situated defendants - including the 16-year old in Texas who got 50 years in state court for his role and the "other members of his online community [who] received sentences of 96 to 222 months' imprisonment." Zuk's sentence was also much lower than the Guidelines recommended for a non-aggravated possession conviction.

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