Child-Porn Sentence Hinges on Oxford Comma

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A prior conviction for sexually abusing an adult justifies a long prison sentence for a first-time child-pornography offender, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
     Without the prior conviction, Avondale Lockhart was looking at up to eight years in prison after he pleaded guilty in 2011 to possession of child pornography.
     He instead received a 10-year sentence because federal prosecutors in Brooklyn seized on a statute that calls for the mandatory-minimum term if an offender has “a prior conviction … under the laws of any state relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.”
     Though Lockhart did not have any prior sexual-abuse convictions involving children, he was convicted over a decade earlier of abusing an adult woman, his then-53-year-old girlfriend.
     Lockhart failed to sway the courts, however, that the mandatory-minimum statute was worded so that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modified each of the three parts of the series.
     Prosecutors argued that the modifier applied only the third element, abusive sexual conduct, since those words follow together after the final comma, a form of punctuation colloquially known as the Oxford comma.
     Lockhart lost his appeal to the Second Circuit, and the Supreme Court affirmed his sentence 6-2 Tuesday, issuing its first set of opinions since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
     “Although §2252(b)(2)’s list of state predicates is awkwardly phrased (to put it charitably), the provision’s text and context together reveal a straightforward reading,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority (parentheses in original). “A timeworn textual canon is confirmed by the structure and internal logic of the statutory scheme.”
     For the dissenting justices, however, the ruling defies commonsense.
     “Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet ‘an actor, director, or producer involved with the new “Star Wars” movie,'” Justice Elena Kagan wrote, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer. “You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the ‘Star Wars’ cast – not an actor in, for example, the latest ‘Zoolander.'”
     Sotomayor said the court has historically applied a strategy called the “rule of the last antecedent” when interpreting statutes that include a list of terms or phrases followed by a limiting clause.
     “The rule provides that ‘a limiting clause or phrase … should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows,'” she added.
     Sotomayor called it “basic intuition that when a modifier appears at the end of a list, it is easier to apply that modifier only to the item directly before it.”
     “That is particularly true where it takes more than a little mental energy to process the individual entries in the list, making it a heavy lift to carry the modifier across them all,” the 15-page ruling states. “For example, imagine you are the general manager of the Yankees and you are rounding out your 2016 roster. You tell your scouts to find a defensive catcher, a quick-footed shortstop, or a pitcher from last year’s World Champion Kansas City Royals. It would be natural for your scouts to confine their search for a pitcher to last year’s championship team, but to look more broadly for catchers and shortstops.”
     Sotomayor found the enhancement a logical one as well.
     “The conclusion that Congress followed the federal template is supported by the fact that Congress did nothing to indicate that offenders with prior federal sexual-abuse convictions are more culpable, harmful, or worthy of enhanced punishment than offenders with nearly identical state priors,” she wrote. “We therefore see no reason to interpret §2252(b)(2) so that ‘sexual abuse’ that occurs in the Second Circuit courthouse triggers the sentence enhancement, but ‘sexual abuse’ that occurs next door in the Manhattan municipal building does not.”
     Kagan said the “ordinary understanding of how English works, in speech and writing alike, should decide this case.”
     Though the dissent insists its statutory interpretation is the obvious one, it says any confusion about the issue still requires reversal for Lockhart under the rule of lenity when a criminal statute contains genuine ambiguity.
     Agents had found more than 15,000 images and at least nine videos on Lockhart’s computer after an undercover sting operation nailed Lockhart for attempting to buy videos.

%d bloggers like this: