7th Circuit upholds life sentence for Hoosier man in child sex crimes case

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A life sentence has been upheld against an Indiana man convicted of a dozen crimes related to his production and possession of child pornography.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday affirmed Charles Skaggs Jr.’s life sentence, handed down by Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Skaggs was charged with nine counts of sexual exploitation of a child and attempted sexual exploitation of a child, two counts of possession of child pornography and one count of concealment of evidence based on evidence found in several thumb drives seized from him pursuant to a warrantless border search at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The district court denied Skaggs’ motion to suppress the evidence and imposed a mandatory life sentence as to his nine counts of sexual exploitation of a child and attempted sexual exploitation of a child. It also imposed a concurrent 10-year sentence on the three remaining counts and a five-year term of supervised release.

A panel of 7th Circuit affirmed in United States of America v. Charles Skaggs, Jr., 20-1229, rejecting Skaggs’ argument that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the child pornography evidence uncovered by the border search.

“The border search of Skaggs’s thumb drives occurred about a year and a half after the searches in (United States v. Wanjiku, 919 F.3d 472 (7th Cir. 2019)), and Skaggs does not point to any intervening precedent on border searches,” Circuit Judge Michael Kanne wrote. “Therefore, the officials had a good faith belief that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment because, as the district court correctly concluded, the search was supported by reasonable suspicion.”

The 7th Circuit added that no court has ever required more than reasonable suspicion for a border search. Thus, because reasonable suspicion existed, it concluded the district court correctly denied Skaggs’ motion to suppress given the good faith exception.

However, it did find that the district court erred by imposing a mandatory life sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3559(e).

“The district court found that Skaggs’s prior state conviction corresponded to a ‘Federal sex offense’ under 18 U.S.C. § 2243. But that provision — § 2243 — is not included in the narrow definition of ‘Federal sex offense’ that triggers § 3559(e)’s mandatory life provision,” Kanne wrote.

Nonetheless, it concluded the error was harmless because the same sentence would have been imposed despite the error.

“Because the district court said it would have imposed a life sentence in any event and discussed the § 3553(a) factors that supported the sentence, its error was harmless, and ‘any remand to the district court for it to impose the same sentence on [Skaggs] would be a ‘pointless step,’” Kanne concluded.

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