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June 29, 2016

Sixth Circuit affirms way-below guideline five-year child porn sentence based in part on jury poll urging sentence even lower

A number of helpful readers made sure that, despite being on the road all day, I did not miss the remarkable Sixth Circuit panel decision today in US v. Collins, No. 15-3236 (6th Cir. June 29, 2016) (available here).  I first blogged about this case here after initial sentencing, recounting these basic details via a news account:

A jury convicted Ryan Collins in October of one count possessing, distributing and receiving child pornography and one count possession of child pornography. Police found more than 1,500 files on his computer, and he was charged with distributing because he used peer-to-peer file sharing programs.

Under federal law, a judge can sentence a defendant to up to 20 years in prison if he or she is found guilty of child porn distribution. On Tuesday, during Collins' sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan asked U.S. District Judge James Gwin to give the maximum sentence for the charge.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services said a guideline sentence for Collins, who is 32 and has no criminal history, would be between about 21 and 27 years in federal prison. While higher than the maximum sentence, the office's calculation accounted for several factors in Collins' case -- including the age of the victims and not taking responsibility for his actions.

But Gwin handed down a five-year sentence to Collins, the minimum allowable sentence for a distribution charge. The judge said that after Collins' trial, he polled jurors on what they thought was an appropriate sentence. The average recommendation was 14 months, Gwin said.

Unhappy with this outcome, federal prosecutors appealed the sentence as unreasonable, but now has lost before a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel. The Court's relatively short opinion includes these passages:

The government also argues that the jury poll was an “impermissible factor[]” for the district judge to consider in crafting an appropriate sentence. Conatser, 514 F.3d at 520. We again disagree. Federal law provides nearly unfettered scope as to the sources from which a district judge may draw in determining a sentence....

District courts also have the authority to “reject the Guidelines sentencing ranges based on articulated policy disagreements in a range of contexts.” United States v. Kamper, 748 F.3d 728, 741 (6th Cir. 2014). Indeed, we have suggested the plausibility of rejecting guidelines ranges in child pornography cases based on policy disagreements. See United States v. Bistline (Bistline I), 665 F.3d 758, 762-64 (6th Cir. 2012) (finding that the district court “did not seriously attempt to refute” the judgments underlying the guidelines).

When establishing the Sentencing Commission, Congress directed it to take “the community view of the gravity of the offense” into account when crafting appropriate criminal sanctions. 28 U.S.C. § 994(c)(4). As reflected in his writing on the subject, and briefly in the sentencing hearing below, the district judge reasons that the Commission fell short of this directive. See Judge James S. Gwin, Juror Sentiment on Just Punishment: Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Reflect Community Values?, 4 HARV. L. & POL'Y REV. 173, 185 (Winter 2010)....

Though we reiterate that juries lack “the tools necessary for the sentencing decision,” Martin, 390 F. App’x at 538, they can provide insight into the community’s view of the gravity of an offense. See Gwin, supra at 193-94; see also Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 615-16 (2002) (BREYER, J., concurring) (jurors “reflect more accurately the composition and experiences of the community as a whole” and are “better able to determine in the particular case the need for retribution”) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The jury did not determine or impose defendant’s sentence. Rather, the district judge – who does possess the necessary tools for the sentencing decision – was at all times interposed between the jurors’ views of an appropriate sentence and the sentencing guidelines’ § 3553(a) factors. Considering the jury’s sentencing recommendation as part of the sentencing calculus did not conflict with the district judge’s duty or ability to properly weigh the § 3553(a) factors and independently craft an appropriate sentence.

June 29, 2016 at 03:04 PM | Permalink

Comments

This is an amazing decision--for better or worse.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jun 30, 2016 6:41:06 AM

A polled jury with common sense.

Posted by: kat | Jun 30, 2016 10:52:31 AM

I assume this goes the other way, too? Judges can poll jurors and then use the results of the jury poll to sentence above the Guidelines, right? What are the limits? What are the rules? Is this something that judges get to do sua sponte? Or, can the parties request a poll?

At the very least, shouldn't the parties have an opportunity to present evidence and sentencing arguments to the jury before it is polled? For example, the jury might be interested in knowing the defendant's criminal history, the fact that he has tried to escape during pre-trial incarceration, the fact that he threatened to kill the AUSA on a jail call, the fact that he failed a drug test while on pre-trial release, etc. None of that information would typically be presented to a jury during the guilt phase. Unless the jury is going to be privy to the PSR and all of the information that is typically presented during the course of a sentencing hearing, then the jury's opinion on what the sentence should be is largely irrelevant.

Posted by: ZCB | Jun 30, 2016 3:44:45 PM

"Minimum allowlable"? I didn't know there was a minimum.

Posted by: tommyc | Jun 30, 2016 7:42:29 PM

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