Sunday, October 27, 2019

Case o' The Week: Headings and Shoulders Above the Crowd - "Exploitation" predicates for federal child porn offenses

 Brave case of first impression brings intellectually-rigorous analysis to – challenging – sentencing fact pattern.
United States v. Schopp, 938 F.3d 1053 (2019), decision available here.
The Hon. Judge Marsha Berzon

Players: Decision by Judge Berzon, joined by Judges Tashima and W. Fletcher. 
  Big win on issue of first impression for former CD Cal AFPD Myra Sun.  

Facts: Schopp pleaded guilty to production of child porn, pursuant to a plea agreement. Id. at 1057.
  The agreement had an appellate waiver. Id.
  Schopp admitted in the agreement that he had two Alaska state priors relating to the sexual assault and abuse of a minor. Id. (Note that neither state offense involved the production of child porn).
  At sentencing, the parties both urged a sentence of thirty-five years (the mand-min if one of the priors counted as federal “sexual exploitation of children.”) The district court rejected the recommendations and instead sentenced Schopp to life. Id.
  Had the multiple-prior enhancement not been applied (based on the state convictions), Schopp’s range would have been 25 to 50 years. Id.
  Schopp appealed, challenging whether his prior state convictions qualified as federal sexual exploitation predicates.

Issue(s): “Our question is whether the meaning of the term ‘relating to the sexual exploitation of children’ in § 2251’s enhancement provision should reflect the elements of the substantive crimes described in the same “[s]exual exploitation of children” statute.” Id. at 1056. “Under the Taylor categorical approach, we begin by defining the generic federal offense — “sexual exploitation of children.” We have yet to define the offense in a precedential opinion, so this is a matter of first impression.” Id. at 1059.

Held: “We hold that Schopp’s prior Alaska convictions are not offenses ‘relating to the sexual exploitation of children’ under § 2251(e), so the district court improperly applied the sentencing enhancement.” Id. at 1056-57.
  All of the offenses described in § 2251 concern visual depictions of children engaging in sexually explicit conduct, with ‘sexually explicit conduct’ defined in a separate statute . . . . We accordingly hold that the federal generic definition of ‘sexual exploitation of children’ is defined within § 2251 as the production of visual depictions of children engaging in sexually explicit conduct, or put simply, the production of child pornography.Id. at 1061.
  “[W]e hold that Schopp’s prior Alaska convictions are not a categorical match to the generic federal offense of ‘sexual exploitation of children’ and cannot serve as predicate offenses for purposes of the multiple-conviction enhancement under § 2251(e).” Id. at 1063. “[W]e REVERSE Schopp’s sentence and REMAND for resentencing.” Id. at 1069.

Of Note: Schopp is a characteristically thoughtful Berzon opinion. The Judge carefully explains the statutory interpretation that leads the panel to reject the government’s (expansive) “priors” theory. The analysis relies heavily on the section heading for the Section 2251 statute: “sexual exploitation of children.” Id. at 1059.
  Add the Schopp arrow to your “statutory analysis” quiver: if a statute’s section heading is in play, Schopp is the case to consult. See id. at 1060 & n.3.  

How to Use: Schopp is a must-read for any porn-production case with potential priors in play. It is also an intriguing decision for its rejection of the appellate waiver. See id. at 1058. As Judge Berzon explains, “Because Shopp’s appeal goes to the legality of his sentence, it is permitted despite his appeal waiver.” Id.
The Hon. Sentencing Commissioner and
District Judge Charles Breyer
  In NorCal, District Judge (and Sentencing Commissioner) Charles Breyer is (correctly) reading this “illegal sentence” exception into every plea agreement. Really, shouldn’t all plea agreements contain this (required) exception to appellate waivers?
For Further Reading: Last week Judge Danielle Hunsaker, of Oregon, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee (with relatively little opposition from Democrats). See article here.  Her nomination by President Trump to the Ninth Circuit now awaits a Senate floor vote.
  After her likely confirmation, Judge Hunsaker will hold the seat vacated by Judge O’Scannlain. See article here. 

Image of the Honorable Judge Marsha Berzon from

Image of the Honorable Charles Breyer from

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender N.D. Cal. Website at



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