In A Child Porn Case, The Fourth Circuit Clarifies Who's Opinion About Custody Matters, And Worries About The Government Having A 'Heavy Foot'

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In many ways, Faisal Hashime's case is a typical child pornography case. A government agent was on the internet looking at child pornography. He saw an email address. He emailed that address and the person who answered agreed to send some child pornography to him.

red-symbols-3-1092769-m.jpgAgents traced the IP address for the email that was sent, and it led to the Hashime residence. There, 19 year old Faisal Hashime lived with his family while he went to community college in Northern Virginia. The agents got a search warrant, as they almost always do in child pornography cases.

Armed with a battering ram, a search warrant, and a phalanx of officers, they stormed into the Hashime residence one morning.

They ordered Faisal and the rest of his family outside. Like many college students, Faisal had been up until 5 a.m. He was wearing his boxer shorts and was forced to stand with the rest of his family in the front yard where the neighbors could see him. It was a chilly morning in this Washington, D.C. suburb, but the family was forced to stand outside in the cold.

Eventually, the family was taken back inside. They weren't allowed to move around their home. They were then taken into their living room. Faisal asked to go to the bathroom but was refused. His mother, who was recovering from brain surgery, asked to lie down, but was not allowed to.

Finally, Faisal was taken to an unfinished part of the basement and interrogated for three hours. He was told he could leave and that he didn't have to make a statement, but he was also told by the officers that they needed to get the truth from him, and that they couldn't leave him there alone.

His mother told the agents that they shouldn't talk to him without a lawyer, but they ignored her and wouldn't let her near Faisal.

At one point, he asked if the interrogation was being recorded. The lead agent told him he wasn't recording the conversation. One of his colleagues, though, was.

He wasn't given Miranda warnings until the end. But before those warnings, he gave a lengthy confession.

He was indicted for possession of child pornography, receipt, distribution, and production.

He filed a motion to suppress his statement, saying that it was custodial and he wasn't given Miranda warnings.

The district court in the Eastern District of Virginia listened to the tape. She said that Faisal sounded calm, so he couldn't have thought he was in custody. The motion was denied.

The Fourth Circuit, in a surprisingly strong opinion by Judge Wilkinson in United States v. Hashime, overturned the district court.

The Fourth Circuit pointed out that here, the agent's action looked like this was custodial. Yet Faisal's demeanor looked like he didn't think this was custody (as far as one could tell from the tape).

But, while the district court relied on Faisail's demeanor, the Fourth Circuit pointed out that it should have, instead, focused on the agents' conduct.

Whether a person is in custody depends on whether a reasonable person in that situation would think she isn't free to leave. It's a classic objective test.

So, the Fourth Circuit pointed out - things from the point of view of the person being interrogated kind of don't really matter. The question isn't what that guy thought, but what someone in his position should have thought.

So the case was remanded for a new trial.

But that's not the only thing interesting about this case.

Faisal decided to plead guilty to the charge of possession and receipt. The receipt of child pornography charge alone carried a mandatory minimum term of five years.

The government, wanting to push forward for even more time, went to trial on the production and distribution charge. The production charge is perhaps the most disturbing - Faisal "produced" child pornography by convincing boys on the internet to send him naked pictures of themselves.

He was convicted, and a fifteen year mandatory minimum applied.

Looking at this, the Fourth Circuit said,

Our reversal of the conviction makes it unnecessary to address any sentencing questions. It suffices to note that, in line with our own review of the custody issue and the district court's comments at sentencing, this was a case in which both police and prosecution applied a heavy foot to the accelerator. We do not doubt for an instant that the defendant's conduct here was reprehensible and worthy of both investigation and punishment, as the guilty plea attests. But attention to balance and degree often distinguishes the wise exercise of prosecutorial discretion from its opposite. For now we leave to the reflection of the appropriate authorities whether it was necessary to throw the full force of the law against this 19-year-old in a manner that would very likely render his life beyond repair.

This is not your father's Fourth Circuit.