Possession and distribution of child pornography are some of the most common felony charges that I deal with. Almost without exception, the individual was caught as part of a "catch a predator" type of sting, conducted by either federal or state law enforcement. Depending on the facts of the case, there is much that can be done to defend cases like these, particularly where the individual has not made a confession to law enforcement. When these stings are conducted, the law enforcement officers cannot see the subject of the sting, after all, the police are sitting on a computer somewhere far away from the subject of their investigation. Police rely on subpoenas for information such as the IP address of the subject computer, as well as the name of the host internet provider to attempt to identify who was using the computer when the alleged conduct took place.
These cases are extremely complex, and you must hire an attorney who understands computer forensics. Many very good lawyers are ill-suited to handle a child pornography case, simply because they do not understand the principles behind peer-to-peer networks, which are the primary means of transfer and receipt of child pornography in the internet age. But one thing is not complicated: the potential punishments for child pornography offenses. They are extremely harsh, across the board. Let's take a look.
It may seem patently unfair, but there is a tremendous difference between how child pornography charges are punished in the state versus federal systems. In Virginia, possession of child pornography under 18.2-374.1:1 is a Class 6 Felony, punishable by up to 5 years in the penitentiary. That sounds bad, and it is, but it's even worse when you consider that the Commonwealth's attorney can allege every image as a separate charge! It doesn't take long before the charges add up to a considerable amount of prison time. That being said, it is typical in Virginia to have an actual sentence significantly lower than the maximum punishment, with some portion of the total sentence suspended based upon compliance with judicial orders following release from prison.
As bad as that is, the federal system is far worse. There are several federal statues involving child pornography, but the most common is 18 U.S.C. 2252. This statute carries a possible 20 year sentence for a single count. The difference between the state and federal system is that a single federal count may actually result in a sentence approaching the maximum penalty! The reason for this is that the federal system's sentencing guidelines are typically much more severe than the state system. It is not unusual for an individual's sentencing guidelines in the federal system to come in at three or four times what they would be for the exact same child pornography offense in the state system. I get a lot of questions from clients in both systems wondering why the penalty ranges are so vastly different. I don't have a good answer for this, and frankly it is patently unfair that one defendant gets a sentence drastically longer than the other, simply by having the misfortune of being prosecuted in federal versus state court.
That being said, there are tactical decisions to be made when facing trial in the state court, simply based on the possibility that the feds may take interest in an ongoing state case, and simply take the matter over. This happens quite often, believe it or not, and when it does things have quickly gone from bad to way worse.
The bottom line is that possession and distribution of child pornography are some of the most serious charges you can face in Virginia. You must have an attorney who can handle these charges in both state and federal court, and has done so before. Computer forensics is a complicated field, and most attorneys don't know a thing about peer-to peer networks and the means by which these images are distributed today. Call an attorney who does, and who is ready to fight for you!