United States v. Matthew Caniff

United States v. Matthew Caniff, No. 17-12410 (February 15, 2019)

The Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 2251(d), holding that the defendant “made a notice” requesting child pornography when he sent a text message soliciting naked pictures from an undercover agent posing as a minor. The Court also found sufficient evidence that the defendant believed he was communicating with a minor and that the district court properly admitted an officer’s testimony that he considered the defendant’s text messages evidence of illegal activity.

18 U.S.C. § 2251(d) – A defendant can be convicted of making a notice or advertisement seeking to receive child pornography based on sending private text messages requesting sexually explicit pictures of minors, whether to a minor or another individual.

Evidence/Rule 704(b) – A witness may testify as to facts supporting “even an obvious inference with respect to the defendant’s state of mind” as long as the testimony does not expressly state an opinion on the defendant’s state of mind.

After a sting operation in which Matthew Caniff had exchanged sexually explicit communications with an undercover officer pretending to be a 13-year-old girl, Caniff was convicted of three sex offenses: 1) attempting to entice a minor under 18 U.S.C. § 2422; 2) advertising child pornography under 18 U.S.C. § 2251(d); and 3) attempted production of child pornography under 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a)

On appeal, Caniff argued there was insufficient evidence to convict him under § 2251(d), which criminalizes using interstate communications to make “any notice or advertisement” seeking child pornography. While exchanging messages with the officer posing as a minor, Caniff had sent text messages requesting nude pictures.

The Court rejected Caniff’s argument that these text messages did not constitute a “notice or advertisement” under § 2251(d). While declining to decide whether the messages constituted “advertisements,” the Court held that the text messages were “notices” under the plain and ordinary meaning of the word “notice,” which simply means “a written or printed announcement.” Caniff’s request did not have to be sent to the general public or a group of people to have “announced” his request for child pornography—the statutory definition of notice “is broad enough to include individually directed text messages.” Caniff’s private text message to the officer served as a “notice” that he was seeking child pornography.

The Court also held that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that Caniff believed the officer was a thirteen-year-old girl, including her own statements that she was thirteen and clues suggesting she was a child, such as her discussing spring break, not being old enough to drive, and her sexual inexperience. The Court added that there was nothing in the text messages supporting Caniff’s defense that he thought he was role-playing with an adult.

Caniff also argued in his appeal that the district court abused its discretion in admitting the officer’s testimony that the text messages in Caniff’s phone were “evidence of illegal activity,” which Caniff argued was prohibited under Federal Rule of Evidence 704(b) as an opinion about a defendant’s state of mind.

The Court noted that Rule 704(b) applies to expert opinions, and the officer had not been qualified as such, but that the evidence was nonetheless admissible since Rule 704(b) does not preclude testimony supporting even an “obvious inference with respect to the defendant’s state of mind,” as long as the testimony does not actually state an opinion expressly addressing the defendant’s state of mind.

In dissent, Judge Newsom objected to the majority’s holding that Caniff had “made a notice” for child pornography. First, he noted that “that’s just not how people talk,” and that the majority’s “expansive construction” of the statutory text was based on how they “might conceivably be used” as opposed to “how they are used in their ordinary and usual sense.” Citing the context of the statute, which focuses on printing and publishing, Judge Newsom concluded that “making a notice” under § 2251 should not extend to private, person-to-person text messages. 

Appeal from the Middle District of Florida

Opinion by Ebel (10th Circuit), joined by Marcus

Newsom concurring in part, dissenting in part

TAGS:  Federal Child Pornography and Exploitation Crimes, Federal Computer Crimes


Page Pate

Page Pate is an accomplished trial lawyer with over 25 years of experience in criminal defense, civil litigation, and whistleblower representation. Page is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Top 100 Lawyers by The National Trial Lawyers, and named to the list of Super Lawyers for the past 15 consecutive years. Page is a frequent expert legal analyst for local and national media and has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia Law School. Read Page's reviews on AVVO. Follow Page on Twitter @pagepate and on Linkedin.

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