Seventh Circuit Upholds Above Guidelines Sentence for Child Porn Distribution – U.S. v. Stinefast

August 6, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

The sentencing guidelines for child pornography crimes are infamous for being inflated—resulting, in some cases, in downward departures from the guidelines. So I was interested to read a Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion upholding a sentence that was actually above the guidelines. In U.S. v. Stinefast, Corey Stinefast of Illinois was charged with distribution of child pornography after he handed an informant a CD full of the material. He was later discovered to have a very large cache of child pornography. He received an above-guidelines sentence of 38 years in prison and appealed the sentence only, arguing that it was unreasonably high as well as alleging misconduct by the prosecutor. The Seventh Circuit ultimately upheld the sentence as reasonable.

The FBI began working with an informant in Illinois after the informant was caught in possession of child pornography. To reduce his sentence, the informant agreed to expose the other two members of a local child pornography ring, who were Stinefast and his co-defendant, Jose Garcia. He wore a wire when Stinefast gave him a compact disc full of child pornography, which formed the basis for Stinefast’s arrest and charges. Agents also searched Stinefast’s home and found more than 200,000 images and videos of child pornography. He was charged with one count of distribution and eventually pleaded guilty, after withdrawing a mental health defense after examination by a prosecution mental health expert. At sentencing, he asked for consideration of his own history of being sexually abused and his low IQ. The court ultimately sentenced him to 216, agreeing to the prosecution’s request to go above the guidelines sentence of 121 to 151 months.

On appeal, Stinefast argued that the prosecution had made inappropriate comments at sentencing; that the court should have considered the mitigating factors he mentioned; and that the above-guidelines sentence was substantively unreasonable. The Seventh Circuit rejected all three arguments. The sentence was not unreasonable, the court said, because the district court was within its discretion to consider Stinefast’s large and occasionally disturbing child porn collection, his past conviction for pulling down young boys’ pants, and his failure to reform after serving time for prior convictions. Stinefast’s mitigating factors were not well supported, the court added, and the district court did acknowledge them and indeed cite them in its determinations. And the allegedly improper comments by prosecutors, related to an implication that Stinefast had molested children, were not prejudicial even if they were improper, which it felt they were not.

District courts do indeed have wide discretion, because they are the finders of fact in criminal cases. But in my opinion, courts should consider whether long prison sentences like this are truly deterrents, or truly just more penalty heaped onto an already serious penalty. Part of the stated reason for Stinefast’s long sentence was the size of his child pornography collection and the inclusion of especially disturbing material. Both of these issues were cited in the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s report on child pornography sentencing as reasons why sentences are inflated: child pornography possessors are often collectors because they barter with the material, so size and disturbingness doesn’t necessarily reflect their own proclivities. Adding yet more time onto a sentence for those reasons seems an awful lot like an emotional decision without rational basis.

Led by David Seltzer, a former Miami-Dade cyber crime prosecutor, Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across the United States who are charged with serious crimes involving technology. If you or someone you love is facing charges, call us today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email anytime.

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