Second Circuit Criminal Law Blog

Circuit Clarifies Precedent, Holds That Sentencing Court Need Not Separately Explain Reasons For Imposition of 20-Year Supervised Release Term

In United States v. Williams, a per curiam decision, the Second Circuit (Pooler, Sullivan, Park) affirmed the imposition of a 20-year term of supervised release on a defendant convicted of child pornography offenses, holding that it is plain from the record that the sentence was based on permissible factors.

Mr.  Williams pled guilty to offenses relating to his receipt, possession, and distribution of child pornography.  As the district court explained at the defendant’s sentencing, Mr. Williams not only had amassed thousands of images and videos featuring child pornography, but also (1) possessed an instructional manual concerning the identification, grooming, and abuse of children; (2) used a social media application to contact prospective victims and attempted to teach another offender to do the same; and (3) belonged to chat groups dedicated to discussing and trading child pornography.  The district court sentenced Mr. Williams to an aggregate term of 160 months’ imprisonment, and imposed a 20-year term of supervised release (a term below the Sentencing Guidelines’ recommendation of lifetime supervised release). 

Mr. Williams challenged the supervise release term as both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.  With respect to the first challenge, Mr. Williams maintained that the district court failed to separately explain its reasons for the length of his supervised release term.  With respect to the second, Mr. Williams contended that nothing in the record supported a need for so long a period of supervised release.  Reviewing for plain error, the Second Circuit rejected both arguments. 

The panel dispensed with the latter challenge easily:  given “the obvious ongoing risk Williams poses to children,” imposition of a 20-year supervised release term does not “shock[] the conscience” or constitute a “manifest injustice,” as necessary to establish substantive unreasonableness. 

The panel considered the procedural reasonableness challenge more closely.  In a previous decision, United States v. Burden (an opinion covered here), the Second Circuit explained that while retribution is an appropriate consideration in determining the length of a defendant’s term of incarceration, retribution may not be considered when determining a defendant’s term of supervised release, because supervised release serves purely rehabilitative ends.  The Burden panel stated that a sentencing court should “separately state its reasons for the term of supervised release” to the extent the court “bases a term of incarceration substantially upon” retribution, and held that a court commits procedural error when a supervised release term “is inflected with retributive interests.”  However, the court expressly declined to address whether district courts are under a “general obligation” to separately explain their reasons for the imposition of specific supervised release terms.

In rejecting Mr. Williams' procedural unreasonableness challenge, the Second Circuit clarified and limited Burden.  The panel asserted that nothing in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c), the statutory provision governing a court’s statement of reasons for imposing a sentence, or in the Second Circuit’s precedents “requires a district court to undertake a separate recitation of the basis for each part of the sentence imposed,” and deemed Burden a “narrow exception” to this principle, applicable only where retribution is the “principal articulated basis” for a court’s sentence.  This was not the case for Mr. Williams: his supervised release term “was clearly justified by the need to protect children—a risk the district court noted on the record” by, inter alia, pointing to the size of Mr. Williams' pornography collection, his possession of an instructional manual, and use of social media and online chats, and by explaining that “allowing [him] unfettered access to minors would jeopardize the safety of the community.” 

Under the circumstances of this case—where the record clearly reflects a permissible basis for the district court’s supervised release determination and suggests the court’s concern with that basis—the Second Circuit’s decision is appropriate and consistent with Burden.  In other cases, however, it will be more difficult to tell whether retribution is the “principal articulated basis” for a defendant’s sentence.  Courts would be wise to express clearly at sentencing the permissible reasons undergirding the supervised release terms they impose, especially if the sentence is far above the minimum (as it was in Burden), in order to avoid what might be an unnecessary remand. 

By Bonita L. Robinson and Harry Sandick