Appeals Court Upholds Conviction for ‘Knowing’ Distribution of Child Porn – U.S. v Collins

June 27, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

A ruling from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal caught my eye as a child pornography criminal defense lawyer. In United States v. Collins, Matthew James Collins of Iowa argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to support his conviction for attempted distribution of child pornography. Collins was convicted of that offense as well as receipt of child pornography; he was originally also convicted of possession, but the court voided that conviction because it was already included in the receipt offense. Investigators found Collins through his use of peer-to-peer file-sharing to share child porn. Law enforcement seized two computers from Collins that he had gotten from a friend; his defense centered around arguments that the friend or another user had downloaded the pornography. He was convicted and sentenced to about 19 and a half years in federal prison.

On appeal, Collins argued that the proof of the knowing distribution offense was insufficient at trial, because the mere use of a file-sharing program does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the user intended to share those files. The Eighth Circuit did not agree. The court wrote that Collins acknowledged understanding computers well enough to download photos from his phone, and that he had downloaded and installed Limewire file-sharing software on both computers. Thus, a jury could reasonably infer that he intended to distribute the material, the court wrote. Furthermore, past Eighth Circuit decisions had upheld knowing distribution convictions, though only under sentencing enhancements, which use a different standard of proof. Finally, the Eighth wrote, the Tenth Circuit has upheld a conviction for distribution based on the use of a file-sharing program.

It’s difficult for anyone who wasn’t in court to judge whether the jury and appeals court made the right decision, since this opinion doesn’t contain a lot of background on the facts. But as a cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I’m disturbed by the implication that mere use of file-sharing software is enough to support a distribution conviction in some courts. This is not true everywhere; I wrote last year about a state-court acquittal for a South Dakota attorney who possessed files because they were relevant to his work as a defense lawyer. He also used Limewire, but apparently did not understand the program well enough to realize it was sharing his files by default. As a child porn defense lawyer, I believe it would be unjust for courts to simply assume that users intend to share files without examining whether they knew about or changed default file-sharing settings.

Child pornography charges are life-changing, carrying long prison sentences and harsh personal consequences. If you’re accused, don’t wait to call the experienced cyber crime lawyers at Seltzer Law, P.A. to learn about your rights and your legal options. For a free consultation, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, call us toll-free at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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