Sunday, May 03, 2009

Porn At Home

United States v. Polouizzi, No. 08-1830-cr (2d Cir. April 24, 2009)(Leval, Katzmann, Raggi, CJJ)

Defendant - referred to in the opinion as Peter Polizzi - was convicted by a jury of eleven counts of possession of child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B), and twelve counts of receipt of child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2), after the jury rejected his insanity defense. Post-trial, he made a Rule 33 motion, arguing that the district court erred by refusing to inform the jury that the receipt counts carried a five-year mandatory minimum. Based in part on a post-verdict colloquy with the jurors that revealed that at least some of them would have accepted the insanity defense had they known of the mandatory minimum, the court granted the motion on the receipt counts only. Both sides appealed.

The Defendant’s Appeal

A. Double Jeopardy

1. Multiple Counts of Possession

Polizzi argued that all but one of his possession counts should be vacated because possessing a single collection of child pornography on a single date could constitute only a single violation of § 2252(a)(4)(B). The circuit agreed, and found plain error, as well.

The statute makes it a crime to possess “1 or more” matters that contain “any visual depiction” of an image containing child pornography. It also contains an affirmative defense if the defendant “possessed less than three [such] matters.” The court rejected the government’s claim that each “matter which contains” a prohibited image is a separate unit of prosecution under this section.

Under the “clear language” of the statute, a person “who simultaneously possesses multiple ... matter[s] containing a visual depiction of child pornography” is subject to “only one conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B).” The language “1 or more” indicates that a person commits only one violation of the statute by possessing more than one matter containing child pornography. Unlike the word “any,” which may be ambiguous in setting the applicable unit of prosecution, the phrase “1 or more” clearly “specifies the plural.” This reading of the statute is bolstered by the existence of the affirmative defense, which “necessarily contemplates that a person who possessed two matters containing prohibited images would face a single charge of violating” this section.

2. Multiple Counts of Receipt

The court considered a similar argument with respect to the receipt counts under § 2252(a)(2), which criminalizes the receipt of “any” prohibited images. The court found the term “any” ambiguous as to setting the applicable unit of prosecution; under the rule of lenity, absent evidence of a contrary congressional intent, “a person who receives multiple prohibited images in a single transaction can only be charged with a single violation of § 2252(a)(2).” Here, the trial evidence showed that Polizzi received prohibited images on four distinct dates, with no evidence of multiple and distinct transfers on each of those dates. Thus, Polizzi could only be convicted of four receipt counts - “one for each date on which he received images - but not multiple receipt counts per day.”

3. Simultaneous Convictions of Possession and Receipt

Finally, Polizzi argued that he could not be convicted of both possession and receipt, because possession is a lesser included offense of receipt. The court noted that both the Third and Ninth Circuits have so held, and found those cases “persuasive,” but did not actually rule on the issue. Polizzi “was charged with possessing certain images of child pornography the receipt of which did not form the basis for a separate receipt count.” Thus, for those four counts, his possession was not incident to an act of receiving for which he has already been punished.

B. Other Claims

At trial, Polizzi tried to get the district court to force the government into an Old Chief-type stipulation that the images were child pornography, so as to prevent them from being introduced into evidence. The district court would not do it, and the circuit affirmed. Here, in light of Polizzi’s insanity defense, the “specific nature and content of the images were relevant” and the “risk of unfair prejudice was minimized by the mode of presentation.”

He also challenged the court's charge on the insanity defense, but the court refused to consider the claim, finding that it was “waived” by his affirmative acceptance of the instruction, and not merely “forfeited” by a lack of objection, which would have left open the possibility of plain error review.

The Cross-Appeal

Although although the court rejected Polizzi’s claim that the Sixth Amendment required the jury to be informed of the mandatory minimum, the court did not agree with the government that district courts can never inform a jury of a mandatory minimum. Nevertheless, it reversed the grant of the Rule 33 motion.

After reviewing the cases, the court held that district courts have discretion to instruct the jury on the applicable mandatory minimum in some circumstances: “Without attempting to define the boundaries of a district court’s discretion in this regard, we recognize the possibility ... that circumstances may exist in which instructing the jury on the consequences of its verdict will better ensure that the jury bases that verdict solely on the evidence and will better discourage nullification.”

Here, the court did not reach the question whether the district court would have had the discretion to inform the jury of the mandatory minimum at Polizzi’s trial. Even if, arguendo, it had, it was “certainly within the trial court’s discretion to decline to,” which it did, and thus the standard for grating a new trial under Rule 33 - “a compelling reason involving substantial unfairness” - was not met.




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