New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
May 28, 2008

EDNY Judge Holds He Erred in Failing to Advise Jury of Mandatory Minimum Sentence Applicable in Child Pornography Possession Case

There is a curious irony to Judge Weinstein's decision in United States v. Polizzi, 06 CR 22 (JBW), 2008 WL 1886006 (E.D.N.Y. April 1, 2008).  Although for many it is a quintessential example of liberal judicial activism, the decision is rooted squarely in conservatives' favorite theory, originalism, i.e. interpreting the constitution minus over two hundred years of history.  And, incidentally, it is hardly a philosophy that Judge Weinstein has been known to embrace.

Of course, the bigger irony in the decision is that we must reach back in history to more barbaric times to find compassionate practices that mitigate the barbarism of today's mandatory minimum sentences.  Holding, contrary to decades of precedent, that he had erred in failing to advise a jury of certain mandatory minimum sentences applicable in a child pornography possession case, Judge Weinstein points out that a jury in 1791 would most certainly have known the consequences of their decision (such jury, it should be noted, made up of white, male property owners), and would thus have been empowered to show mercy by manipulating its verdict.  Polizzi puts pay to the idea that any judicial philosophy is less malleable than another or more likely to restrain judicial law-making. 

At the heart of this decision is the tragic story of Peter Polizzi, an Italian immigrant who on the surface had achieved the American dream – successful businessman, father of five, self-taught guitarist.  Psychologically scarred, however, by childhood sexual abuse, he secretly repaired to a double-locked room above his garage over a five-year period, where he viewed and downloaded images of child pornography.   There was no evidence that he had ever forwarded the images to another, or engaged in any improper conduct with a child. 

A subscriber to a website targeted in an FBI investigation, Polizzi was arrested and prosecuted for possession and receipt of child pornography.  At trial, jury rejected his insanity defense and found him guilty on all counts.  He faced a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years on the receiving counts. 

When informed after their verdict of the mandatory minimum sentence, three jurors indicated that they would have voted not guilty by reason of insanity had they known of the applicable mandatory minimum, and two other jurors indicated that they believed Polizzi should be treated not incarcerated. 

Failure to Advise Jury of Mandatory Minimums

Building on these jurors’ amended thoughts, Judge Weinstein crafts a compelling opinion that the defendant had a right to have his jury informed in advance of the mandatory sentence riding on their decision.  Reviewing legal and historical scholarship regarding criminal practices in the Thirteen Colonies, the court concludes that trial juries during that period would not only have known of the harsh sentences to be imposed on a finding of guilt, but also "would have been expected to deliver a verdict of not guilty or of guilty of a lesser crime had it believed the punishment excessive for the crime actually charged and proved."

Why should such practices apply today?  “With the advent of mandatory minimum sentences . . . federal juries today again face-albeit often unknowingly –‘either-or’ choices similar to those facing the British and colonial juries of 1791 [i.e. death/transportation/whipping or conviction of a lesser crime]. To fully exercise their historical function, juries today must understand the two eithers; they cannot rely on the court to mitigate because it is bound by the statutory minimum term of imprisonment.”  If juries are not just fact-finders, if they are truly the bulwark that curbs judicial, executive and legislative power - "the conscience of the community and guardian against government oppression ... [and] a 'safety valve' for exceptional cases" - then, Judge Weinstein reasons, juries must be entrusted with complete information regarding the consequences of their actions, including information about their power to dispense mercy through nullification.

Putting aside concerns that hearkening back to the days of the Eighteenth Century would not always be a giant step forward, or that knowledge of mandatory minimums may harden rather than melt jurors' hearts, the Polizzi holding is a persuasive and creative approach to mitigating the severity of mandatory minimum sentences. 

Few expect this decision to survive Second Circuit scrutiny. But Judge Weinstein has his eye on higher courts - the court of public opinion for one, and, of course, the Supreme Court, which given its current ideological make-up, may be more than a little receptive to his call for a return to 1791 and a limited reintroduction of the jury’s power to nullify.   The Supremes may also revisit the issue addressed at the beginning of the Polizzi decision: that the statute at issue is void for vagueness and overbreadth, because it has the potential to criminalize innocent behavior. 

Lack of Scienter

In a nutshell, the Polizzi court finds the statute problematic because it penalizes “knowing” possession and receipt of child pornography, but does not require on its face that the individual "intend" to possess such material. While equating knowledge with criminal intent may work with traditional crimes like possession of stolen goods or drugs, the court points out, this construct fails to account for the myriad ways in which one can inadvertently receive and possess materials via the Internet - "where email may be automatically received, files can instantaneously download themselves, web pages shown for only a fraction of a second are automatically stored, and knowledge can first be acquired after the fact of receipt.”  As one FBI agent put it, the court quotes, "[o]ne click, you're guilty."  In fact, the court claims (perhaps a bit hysterically), that one of its interns refused to conduct certain Internet research on the case for fear of committing a crime. 

It is this significant potential for the statute to penalize accidental and benign conduct that renders it void for vagueness and overbreadth - problems, the court concludes, that cannot be rescued by the stingy safe harbor provision in the statute, or suspect judicial efforts to imply an intent element.  Constrained by precedent to reject the challenge, Judge Weinstein clearly believes this is an area ripe for revisitation by the appellate courts.

Other Challenges

The Polizzi opinion also addresses a number of interesting challenges that, for one reason or another, were inappropriate in this particular case or are foreclosed by current precedent.  They may however prove more fruitful under a different set of facts or in the future as society's perception of these issues evolve:

  • Eighth Amendment: Five years for "psychologically stunted man who . . . suffered vicious sexual abuse as a child" and who needs "treatment not a destructive long prison sentence," is undoubtedly cruel, the court concludes, but unfortunately, is not unusual, where "cruelty in punishment is adopted by Congress as policy."  Moreover, although some may find the punishment in Polizzi's case to be "shockingly disparate" - particularly in light of the passive nature of his crime, his psychological disabilities, his low risk of recidivism, and the public "scourging" or registration as a sex offender that awaits him after prison - it is not unconstitutionally "grossly disproportionate" to the crime committed under applicable case-law.  In this context, the court does an interesting analysis of the median sentences meted out by states for similar conduct (producing some very useful material for those seeking to challenge draconian sentencing guideline ranges in child pornography case), and also importantly queries the tendency to lump all sex offenders together when addressing their future dangerousness.  Such conclusions "fail to take into account differences between pederasts and voyeurs."


  • Irrationality: Similarly, the five-year mandatory minimum for receipt of child pornography, while a severe penalty for Polizzi's crime, is not irrational, as that term is defined, despite the fact that the possession count does not carry any mandatory minimum.  Congress is not held to "a precise calculus of harm and risk."  Importantly, in this section, the court notes that the evidence regarding whether child pornography actually encourages viewers to commit physical sexual offenses (often presented as a given) is in fact inconclusive.


  • Multiplicity:  Conflation of possession and receipt raises a problem of multiplicity (indictment improperly charges a single offense multiple times in separate counts, when only one crime has been committed).  The court did not need to address this issue since it was setting aside the verdict on the receiving counts. 


  • Rule of Lenity: This doctrine of statutory construction requires a court to resolve any ambiguity in favor of a defendant.  Unfortunately, the mandatory minimum Polizzi was subject to is totally unambiguous, and does not (but surely should) "contain an implicit reasonableness limitation." 


  • First Amendment: The court notes the tension created between First Amendment rights (such as the right to view adult pornography in privacy) and the expansive regulatory and enforcement efforts to curb exploitation of children, and cites several decisions that have struck down child pornography legislation as unconstitutionally overbroad.  One of these decisions, however, was recently overruled by the Supreme Court in United States v. Williams, 2008 WL 2078503 (May 19, 2008) ("pandering" provision of PROTECT Act neither overbroad nor vague).


  • Fourth Amendment: The court highlights the tension between legal constructs of what is a "reasonable" expectation of privacy in the online context, and the actual expectations of online users.  In particular, he questions the validity of denying Fourth Amendment protections to non-substantive communications (such as email subject headings and Internet search queries) when the line between content and non-content may be impossible to draw, and thus lead to unduly invasive searches by law enforcement.


  • Separation of Powers: The court notes the concern that statutory mandatory minimums have shifted too much power from the judiciary to the executive, but concludes that "on the basis of current precedent," applying the functional approach of analyzing statutes under the separation of powers doctrine, the mandatory minimum prescribed for receipt of child pornography passes muster.  The kicker here is "current precedent," which the court obviously believes needs revisiting. 

This huge decision (not just literally in length, but also in heart and compassion) is a must-read for anyone defending someone charged with possession of child pornography. 

See Archives for all posts since September 2007.