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Federal Court Overturns Child Porn Conviction

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Oct 4, 2004 11:54 AM PDT    Text size: 
MIAMI — A federal appeals court reversed a Florida man’s child-pornography conviction last week with “no small regret,” after finding it unconstitutional because an interstate shipment of blank computer disks was not a strong enough link to interstate commerce to satisfy the law's requirements.

According to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Florida-resident James Maxwell’s conviction under federal code § 2252A was faulty because, even if the disks had been imported from out of state at one point in time, Maxwell’s use of the disks was not for an economic benefit.

Maxwell had been convicted of possessing two computer disks of child pornography in May of last year.

The appellate court’s ruling centered around the statute’s wording that possession of child pornography can be a federal crime simply by being copied or produced using materials that originally came from out of state.

“Congress’s reference in this statute to production materials smacks of pretext; the statute’s true and core purpose is to criminalize the possession of child pornography,” wrote former Chief Judge Gerald Tjoflat, noting that it was “a proper subject for state regulation alone.”

The statue would only be constitutional with regards to Maxwell’s specific case if possessing child pornography produced with out-of-state materials “sufficiently affected” interstate commerce, according to the court.

“The regulation at issue in Maxwell’s case […] has no clear economic purpose,” Tjoflat wrote. “It makes no effort to control national trade by regulating intrastate activity. Instead, it attempts to regulate primary conduct directly, even with state borders.”

The court also warned that legislation like § 2252A could easily be seen as an abuse of federal powers.

“Congress could federalize the crime of murder by inserting a statutory element that requires the prosecution to prove that the defendant ate a cheeseburger that traveled in interstate commerce,” wrote Tjoflat.

“The federalist system places a vital check on the power of the central government to trespass on our freedom,” he continued. “We decline today, with no small regret about the outcome in this case, to ignore that design, even in favor of strengthening the hand of federal law enforcement in the salutary aim of eradicating child pornography.”

Federal prosecutors said they are considering appealing the case.

Attorneys for Maxwell declined to comment.

The case is USA v. Maxwell, No. 03-14326.

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