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U.S. v. DOWELL, NO. 13-4576

Decided: November 13, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in applying a “vulnerable victim” sentence enhancement to John Dowell’s (“Dowell”) conviction for child pornography-related crimes. However, the Court also held that the district court’s error was harmless, and affirmed Dowell’s 960-month sentence.

Dowell was arrested in late 2011 on child pornography charges. After his arrest, a search of his computers revealed over 70,000 pornographic files, seventy-five percent of which were child pornography. Some of the files included videos of Dowell engaging in sexual acts with two minor children. Thereafter, Dowell was convicted on twelve counts of producing child pornography, and one count of transportation of child pornography.

The Court first reasoned that “as applied” to Dowell, the district court’s sentence did not amount to a “cruel and unusual” punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because the sentence was not “grossly disproportionate” to the crimes he committed. The Court rejected Dowell’s claim that his life-sentence was cruel and unusual merely because he never threatened the minor children with physical harm. Psychological damage, the Court noted, can be just as harmful to the children; for instance, it may cause the minor children to have developmental issues for the rest of their lives.

Next, in considering the district court’s application of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.), the Court determined that the district court had impermissibly “double count[ed]” when it applied a “vulnerable victim enhancement” to Dowell’s production of child pornography charges. Double counting “occurs when a provision of the Guidelines is applied to increase punishment on the basis of a consideration that has been accounted for by application of . . . a statute.” Although the vulnerable victim enhancement could have been applied in this case for a non-age related reason, the district court clearly applied it based on “age related factors” that were already accounted for in the original charge. However, notwithstanding its double counting, the district court’s error was harmless because Dowell would be still be subject to the same length prison term even if his sentence were recalculated without the double counting.

Full Opinion

James Bull Sterling