U.S. v. COBLER, NO. 13-4170

Decided: April 11, 2014

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court by finding that it did not abuse its discretion by imposing a 120-year sentence on a defendant convicted of production, possession, and transportation of child pornography, in connection with sexual molestation of a four-year-old boy.  The Court held that the sentence was appropriate because it was designed to protect the public, and address the seriousness of the defendant’s crimes.

Numerous images and video recordings depicting the sexual abuse of children were found on defendant’s computer.  During an interview with police, defendant admitted he downloaded, possessed, and shared child pornography.  Defendant also confessed that he had sexually molested a four-year-old boy while acting as the child’s babysitter on several occasions and had documented the encounters.  Further, the defendant admitted to having a serious communicable disease at the time he molested the child, and acknowledged the possibility that his disease could be transmitted to the child by sexual contact.  None of the defendant’s criminal charges provided for a lifetime sentence but the sentence was ultimately calculated to be 120 years, which represented the sum of the statutory maximum sentences available for each count of the defendant’s conviction.  The defendant argued that his 120-year sentence violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because the sentence is disproportionate to the severity of his crimes.

A defendant may challenge the proportionality of a sentence under the Eighth Amendment in two different ways.  First, under an “as-applied” challenge, a defendant contests the length of a certain term-of-years sentence as being disproportionate under the totality of circumstances.  Second, in a “categorical” challenge, a defendant asserts that an entire class of sentences is disproportionate based on the nature of the offense, or the characteristics of the offender.  In this appeal, the defendant argued that his sentence is constitutionally infirm under both these approaches.

Before an appellate court concludes that a sentence is grossly disproportionate based on an as-applied challenge, the court first must determine that a “threshold comparison” of the gravity of the offense and the severity of the sentence “leads to an inference of gross disproportionality.”  In the event that such an inference may be drawn, the court is required to compare the defendant’s sentence: (1) to sentences for other offenses in the same jurisdiction; and (2) to sentences for similar offenses in other jurisdictions.  If this extended analysis validates the threshold determination that the sentence is grossly disproportionate, then the sentence is deemed cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

With respect to a categorical challenge, the reviewing court first determines whether a national consensus against the sentencing practice at issue is evident from objective societal standards.  Next, the court exercises its independent judgment whether the punishment violates the Constitution.  Thus, a categorical challenge requires consideration of the culpability of the class of offenders in light of their crimes and characteristics, along with the severity of the punishment.

Given the defendant’s shocking and vile conduct, the Court held that he failed to substantiate the required threshold inference of gross disproportionality.  The Court also held that the defendant’s categorical challenge likewise lacked merit.  Thus, the sentence of 120 years’ imprisonment did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.  The Court also reviewed the defendant’s challenge to the reasonableness of his sentence.  The Court determined that the sentencing court did not commit significant procedural error.  Further, the Court determined that the sentence was substantively reasonable as the district court explicitly considered the need for defendant’s sentence to deter others from engaging in what the court considered “the most serious and egregious conduct.”  Judgment affirmed.

Full Opinion

Grace Faulkenberry

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