Conviction Upheld For Defendant Who Didn’t Realize Transporting Child Porn Is Illegal – U.S. v. Dean

February 5, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

In my work as a cyber crime defense lawyer, I occasionally represent defendants who were unpleasantly surprised by criminal charges for an act they thought was perfectly legal. Such defendants are often disappointed to learn that ignorance of the law is not a defense. That was the message of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in U.S. v. Dean. John Karl Dean flew from Chicago to Ottawa with a laptop he knew contained hundreds of files containing child pornography. Dean served 21 months in a Canadian prison for the offense and then was prosecuted again in the United States, receiving 87 months in prison. Dean’s appeal argued that he didn’t knowingly break the law because he didn’t realize it existed, but the Seventh Circuit found that this was not a defense.

Dean’s laptop had more than 14,000 still images and 700 videos of child pornography when he got on an airplane on August 20, 2009. It’s unclear whether Canadian police found the pornography in Customs or after he left the airport, but in any case, he was convicted in Canada of possession of child pornography. After he completed his Canadian sentence, U.S. law enforcement took custody of Dean and charged him with transportation of child pornography. He pleaded guilty, and at the plea hearing, acknowledged that he knew the material was on the computer and knew it was pornography when he took the computer on his flight. However, he maintained that he didn’t knowingly break the law. The district court, saying Guidelines sentences are too severe, started with a below-guidelines sentence of 108 months and subtracted his Canadian prison time, ultimately sentencing Dean to 87 months plus lifetime supervised release.

The Seventh Circuit first dispensed with Dean’s argument that he never admitted to knowing that transporting child pornography was against the law. This argument was foreclosed by his guilty plea, the court said, and he didn’t challenge the voluntariness of the plea in his brief, waiving the argument. Furthermore, the court said, Dean’s arguments must fail on the merits because he admitted in court to knowingly transporting child pornography. Ignorance of the law is not a defense; the “knowingly” in the statute refers to knowing transportation, not knowing the transportation is illegal. The court also rejected Dean’s argument against his sentence, which was that the base offense level for his sentence is higher than the base offense level for more serious crimes. This is both irrelevant and in some cases untrue, the court said. And while the district judge feels the base offense level is too high, the court said, longer sentences have been found reasonable.

While the Seventh Circuit rejected the sentence reasonableness argument Dean made, it did note in a footnote that the Guidelines substantially increase child pornography sentences by requiring enhancements for several circumstances that are in virtually all child pornography cases. This includes use of a computer, high number of images and distributing using file-sharing, which is considered a thing of value by most circuits. This is the basis for the feeling by some judges, including the district court in this case, that the Guidelines result in too-high sentences. This case makes the comparison even easier, because Dean served an apparently full child pornography possession sentence in Canada that was only 21 months, for conduct that could easily have gotten him 10 years in prison in the United States. I believe the Guidelines are ripe for an overhaul, and I look forward to a revision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across the United States who are charged with serious crimes involving the Internet or other technology. To tell us about your case and learn more about how we can help, call us toll-free—24 hours a day and seven days a week—at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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