Juvenile Adjudication Is Prior Conviction for Sentence Enhancement Purposes – U.S. v. Woodard

September 20, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

Proving clients not guilty is a vital part of my job as a child pornography criminal defense attorney. But because the lengths of sentences for the same crime can vary dramatically in some circumstances, another important part of my job is defending clients from overreaching by prosecutors during the sentencing phase of a trial. After a defendant is found guilty in federal court—where online child pornography possession is often tried—he or she is subject to sentencing according to a complex set of federal guidelines that depend partly on things like prior convictions or acceptance of responsibility. The meaning of those guidelines was in dispute in United States v. Woodard, a recent child pornography appeal decided by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Frank Joseph Woodard of Iowa pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography. When he was sentenced, however, the prosecutors in his case cited a juvenile adjudication for second-degree sexual abuse as a prior conviction “involving sexual abuse.” A prior conviction increases the defendant’s time in prison from 0 to 10 years for the base offense to 10 to 20; the prosecutors further sought to use the juvenile adjudication to apply a five-level sentence enhancement. Woodard did not deny that the juvenile case took place or that the facts reported by the prosecutors were accurate, but challenged the use of a juvenile adjudication as a prior conviction. After a hearing, the Iowa district court decided that both sentence increases could apply, and sentenced him to 14 years in prison.

Woodard appealed, challenging the determination itself as well as alleging the trial court failed to establish that the juvenile case was determined in a constitutional manner. Both aspects of the appeal failed. The Eighth Circuit addressed the question of whether a juvenile adjudication could count as a prior conviction in 2002’s U.S. v. Smalley, which involved the Armed Career Criminal Act, and the court did not find Woodard’s attempt to distinguish that case from his convincing. Next, the court rejected the argument that one juvenile conviction did not establish “a pattern of activity involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor.” Under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, only two such instances are required, the court said, and it is not required that all result in conviction—meaning a juvenile adjudication should be sufficient in any case. Finally, the Eighth found that sufficient evidence supported the constitutionality of the juvenile adjudication; pointing out that documentation is lacking is insufficient to establish that any constitutional rights were actually denied. Thus, it upheld Woodard’s sentence.

The Eighth Circuit notes in its decision that this decision joins it with several sister circuits in deciding that a decades-old conviction is sufficient for a sentence enhancement in sexual abuse cases. Woodard’s juvenile adjudication was 19 years old when the instant case was sentenced; other circuits have permitted enhancements for conduct as old as 35 years old. As a cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, I think this shows how difficult it is for child pornography defendants to convince courts they have changed their ways. In other cases, a very long gap between offenses may convince a court to show mercy in sentencing, but there is a perception that child pornography defendants are unable to change and simply get caught when their luck runs out. As a child pornography defense attorney, I think it’s more complex than that—and I’m disappointed that courts don’t agree.

If you’re accused of a child pornography crime, you’re facing a very long prison sentence and other serious penalties. Don’t wait to call the experienced cyber crime defense lawyers at Seltzer Law, P.A. Led by David Seltzer, a former cyber crime prosecutor for the Miami-Dade state’s attorney’s office, we represent clients around the United States who are accused of state and federal crimes related to the Internet. For a free consultation, call us 24 hours a day and seven days a week at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email anytime.

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