Child-Pornography Possession in State and Federal Court

Among the common offenses for which people must register as sex offenders is possession of child pornography.

Under California law, possession of child pornography is a felony, though it may be punished by imprisonment either in the county jail for up to one year or in state prison for 16 months, two years, or three years. Pen. Code § 311.11(a). If you possess more than 600 images and at least ten of them depict a prepubescent minor or one under the age of twelve, then you’re facing a possible top term of five years instead of three. Id. § 311.11(c)(1). The same rule applies if you possess any images that portray sadomasochistic activity. Id. § 311.11(c)(2). To count the number of images, each still photo or depiction counts as one image, and each motion picture or video counts as fifty. Id. § 311.11(f). If you have prior convictions for child pornography or any other offense that requires sex-offense registration, then you’re looking at state prison for two, four, or six years. Id. § 311.11(b).

A lot can turn, however, on how a prosecutor charges the case, and several related, alternative offenses may be charged as felonies or misdemeanors. See generally id. §§ 311-312.7 (cataloging the criminal obscenity laws).

Under federal law, possession of child pornography is a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to ten years in all cases or twenty years if any image depicts a prepubescent minor or one under the age of twelve. 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5), (b)(2). If you have prior convictions for child pornography or another offense that requires sex-offense registration, then you’re looking at a maximum sentence of twenty years and a mandatory minimum of ten. Id.

Alternatively, if the prosecutor charges you with receiving child pornography rather than possessing it, you face a mandatory-minimum sentence of five years and a maximum sentence of twenty. See id. § 2252A(a)(2), (b)(1). Tack on a prior conviction and you’re looking at a minimum of fifteen years and a maximum of forty. Id. If you’re not clear on the distinction between receiving and possessing or why the former triggers a mandatory-minimum sentence while the latter doesn’t, you’re not alone. No one understands it, but it helps prosecutors obtain guilty pleas by offering to dismiss the receipt charge if you plead guilty to the possession or by threatening to add the receipt charge if you don’t.

In federal court, your actual sentence will depend on how the court applies the federal sentencing guidelines. See generally U.S.S.G. § 2G2.2 (setting forth the guideline for child-pornography possession). As in state court, there are enhancements based on the number of images, the age of the minors, and any sadomasochistic imagery (among others). In federal court, each still photograph or depiction counts as one image, and each motion picture or video counts as 75 images. Generally, in better-case scenarios, you’re looking at a guideline range of around two years. In worse-case scenarios, even for simple possession, you could well be facing eight to ten years in prison or more.

Many well-meaning people believe these punishments are excessive, and among the most criticized is a federal provision that adds two aggravating points to your guideline calculation if you used a computer to commit the offense. Id. § 2G2.2(b)(6). In reality, everyone receives this enhancement because, nowadays, child pornography (and all pornography) is possessed virtually exclusively through the use of computers. Simply, it makes no sense to consider them as an aggravating factor at sentencing.

For these reasons, in federal court, child-pornography possession generates more below-guideline sentences than any other category. In fact, in a 2010 survey of federal judges by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, over 70% of respondents—representing nearly 70% of all active, sentencing judges—believed the guidelines for possession and the mandatory minimum for receipt were too high.  Just two percent thought they were too low.

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