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U.S. v. HELTON, NO. 13-4412

Decided: April 2, 2015

The Fourth Circuit held that, under the facts of the case, a lifetime term of supervised release following a 60 month term of imprisonment was both substantively and procedurally reasonable, and affirmed the district court’s sentence.

The West Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, with the help of the FBI, caught the 19-year-old defendant, Steven Helton (Helton), with 961 child pornography images on his computer, of which 42 were actively accessible for viewing.  Helton alleged that he had been sexually abused as a juvenile, and admitted he had sexually abused another minor while a minor himself, and that he had a history of viewing child pornography, for which he had sought unsuccessful treatment.  A federal grand jury indicted Helton for two counts of knowing receipt and possession of child pornography under 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252A(a)(2), (a)(5)(B), and § 2252A(b)(1)-(2).  Helton pled guilty to one count of knowing possession of child pornography under U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B) and § 2252A(b)(2).  Following the preparation of a presentence report and a sentencing hearing, the district court judge sentenced Helton to 60 months imprisonment and a lifetime of supervised release.  Helton appealed the supervised release portion of the sentence.

The Fourth Circuit found the lifetime term of supervised release both substantively and procedurally reasonable.  The Court said that sentences within the Sentencing Guideline range are presumed substantively reasonable.  Here, the lifetime supervised release was within the Sentencing Guideline under U.S.S.G. § 5D1.2(b), and within the statutory rule under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k).  Thus, the supervised release term was substantively reasonable.  For a sentence to be procedurally reasonable, the sentencing judge must consider the factors under 18 U.S.C. 3553(a), and explain why the particular sentence fits the goals of sentencing.  The Fourth Circuit found that the district court judge specifically reviewed the factors under 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) in fashioning her sentence.  Further, the district court judge granted a downward departure from the prison term of 78 to 97 months recommended in the presentence report, finding that in light of Helton’s age, lack of prior criminal convictions, the seriousness of the crime, and the lifetime term of supervised release, the interests of punishment and deterrence would be served by the shorter prison term.  The Fourth Circuit further noted that the U.S. Sentencing Commission Guidelines Manual specifically recommends the maximum supervised release term of lifetime supervised release for sex offenses.  Finally, the court noted that Helton could petition to reduce his supervised release term after completing one year of supervised release.

Judge Gregory wrote a separate concurring opinion.  He found that the lifetime supervised release sentence imposed in this case was both substantively and procedurally reasonable, though he felt the case was closer for substantive reasonableness.  Judge Gregory wrote separately to warn against granting “undue deference” to the Sentencing Guidelines, which are advisory.  He noted that the Sentencing Guidelines for child pornography cases are unusual, and can lead to under- or over-sentencing for the actual crime committed.  Against this backdrop, he warned that a sentence within the Guideline range – at least in the area of child pornography crimes – may not, in fact, be substantively reasonable under all the circumstances of a given case.

Full Opinion

Katherine H. Flynn