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Affirmed: Defendant Too Creepy for Downward Variance

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

David Sheridan entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to distributing child pornography. At his sentencing hearing, Sheridan did not object to the court’s calculation of a Sentencing Guidelines range of 360 to 480 months; instead, he just requested a sentence not exceeding the 180-month mandatory minimum.

The proposed downward variance was primarily based on Sheridan’s age — 53 at the time of sentencing — and the criticism that several courts have leveled at the child pornography Guideline ranges.

The district court denied Sheridan’s request, and sentenced Sheridan to 360 months. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision in an unpublished opinion. Here’s why.

The party appealing a sentence has the burden of proving that it is unreasonable. The Third Circuit reviews sentences under an abuse of discretion standard. In doing so, the appellate court defers to a district court's choice of final sentence. The court will affirm a procedurally reasonable sentence "unless no reasonable sentencing court would have imposed the same sentence on that particular defendant for the reasons the district court provided."

Those are tough standards, and Sheridan failed to meet them.

Sheridan argued that the district court abused its discretion by according undue weight to the child pornography Guidelines, and that that resulted in an unreasonably severe sentence. He claims that the district court failed to sufficiently consider that the child pornography Guidelines merit lesser deference. The appellate court disagreed, noting.

[Sheridan] had not only possessed child pornography; he had attempted to distribute it to persons he believed to be minors. Worse yet, he tried to arrange a meeting with someone he thought was a minor, and the nature of that meeting was all too apparent to the district court. Sheridan has a lengthy criminal history that included assaulting children, he is already required to register as a sex offender, and there is still more. The psychological evaluation Sheridan underwent established that he met the criteria for sexually violent predators, which, when viewed in combination with the nature of both his past conduct and current offense, indicates a severe risk of recidivism. Finally, he does not have the kind of reduced mental capacity that is sometimes viewed as worthy of a downward variance.

In Kimbrough v. United States, the Supreme Court explained that the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) require that courts impose a sentence that is the minimum required to achieve the objectives of the sentencing court. When the primary objective of sentencing is incapacitation, the need to explain why a less severe sentence would not satisfy the objectives of a given sentence is drastically reduced.

Here, the Third Circuit agreed that district court acted reasonably in concluding that Sheridan's continuing propensity toward victimizing children required a lengthy sentence, and that the sentence was not unreasonable given the unique circumstances.

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