United States v. Sprenger, No. 19-2779 (7th Cir. 2021)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Sprenger pled guilty to the production and possession of child pornography with a plea agreement. He sought to withdraw his guilty plea and invalidate the entire agreement on the ground that the legal theory upon which his production conviction (18 U.S.C. 2251(a)) rests is invalid. Spring argued that he produced images in which he was engaged in sexually explicit conduct but the sleeping victim was not engaged in sexually explicit conduct. When Sprenger initially entered into the plea agreement, his admitted conduct was sufficient to provide the factual basis for his production conviction.

The government agreed with Sprenger’s position and the Seventh Circuit vacated his production conviction. The plea agreement still provides an adequate factual basis for the possession conviction, which supports that Sprenger’s plea to the possession offense remains knowing and voluntary notwithstanding the invalidity of the production conviction.

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 19-2779 UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. ADAM SPRENGER, Defendant-Appellant. ____________________ Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:18-cr-00105-1 — John J. Tharp, Jr., Judge. ____________________ ARGUED FEBRUARY 25, 2021 — DECIDED OCTOBER 6, 2021 ____________________ Before EASTERBROOK, WOOD, and KIRSCH, Circuit Judges. KIRSCH, Circuit Judge. Adam Sprenger pled guilty to production and possession of child pornography pursuant to a plea agreement. He now seeks to withdraw his guilty plea and invalidate the entire agreement on the ground that the legal theory upon which his production conviction rests is invalid. When Sprenger initially entered into the plea agreement, his admitted conduct was su cient to provide the factual basis for his production conviction. He contends that’s no 2 No. 19-2779 longer the case, and thus, he is entitled to withdraw his plea to that o ense. The government agrees with Sprenger on this point, as do we, so we vacate his production conviction. We do not agree with Sprenger, however, that he is likewise entitled to withdraw his plea to the separate possession o ense based on his now-invalid production conviction. The plea agreement still provides an adequate factual basis for the possession conviction, which supports that Sprenger’s plea to the possession o ense remains knowing and voluntary notwithstanding the invalidity of the production conviction. We therefore a rm Sprenger’s possession conviction, leaving the still-valid portions of the plea agreement intact. I Adam Sprenger was indicted on four charges relating to the production, transportation, and possession of child pornography: count 1 charged production of child pornography with respect to Victim A, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a); count 2 also charged production of child pornography but with respect to Victim B; count 3 charged transportation of child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(1); and count 4 charged possession of child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). On February 15, 2019, Sprenger pled guilty to count 1 (the production o ense involving Victim A) and count 4 (the possession o ense), pursuant to a plea agreement he voluntarily entered into with the government. Sprenger also stipulated to committing count 2 (the production o ense involving Victim B); this stipulation was solely for sentence-computation purposes. The plea agreement entitled Sprenger to a dismissal of counts 2 and 3 in exchange for his pleading guilty to counts 1 and 4. No. 19-2779 3 Sprenger admitted to several facts in the plea agreement: With respect to counts 1 and 2, the production o enses involving Victims A and B respectively, Sprenger admitted that he used the victims “to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct.” R. 38 at 2, 6. Speci cally, he admitted the following as to count 1: He traveled from Illinois to a hotel in Wisconsin along with Victim A, who was 14 years old. When they were in a hotel room there, he “used a Samsung Galaxy cellular phone to take at least seven photographs of Victim A while she was sleeping.” Id. at 3. In one of these photos, he “photographed his naked, erect penis next to Victim A’s face,” and in another, he “photographed his own face, with his tongue sticking out, next to Victim A’s clothed groin.” Id. And as to count 2, he admitted: He lived with Victim B’s mother and took four videos of Victim B, who was 13 years old, while she was sleeping. In the rst video, he “pulled back the blanket that was covering Victim B and focused the camera on Victim B’s clothed buttocks and vagina”; his “erect penis was visible as he masturbated over Victim B.” Id. at 6. In the second video, he “reached with his hand and made physical contact with Victim B’s clothed vagina.” Id. In the third, he “made physical contact with Victim B’s clothed vagina and buttocks,” and in the last, he “ejaculated onto Victim B’s clothed buttocks.” Id. at 6–7. With respect to count 4, the possession o ense, Sprenger admitted that he possessed over 1,000 images and videos of child pornography across multiple devices. The child pornography he possessed included “images and videos of children, some as young as toddlers, being forced to engage in oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse,” and also “sadomasochistic images and lascivious exhibition of minors’ genitals.” Id. at 5–6. 4 No. 19-2779 Included in these images was the photo he took of “his naked, erect penis next to Victim A’s face,” and the one of “his own face, with his tongue sticking out, next to Victim A’s clothed groin.” Id. at 4. Likewise included were the four videos involving Victim B, in which he “ lmed himself masturbating over Victim B as she slept, making physical contact with Victim B’s clothed vagina and buttocks, and ejaculating onto Victim B’s clothed buttocks.” Id. at 5. Sprenger agreed in the plea agreement that these facts “establish[ed] his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. at 2. The district court thus inquired about these factual admissions at the change of plea hearing before accepting Sprenger’s guilty plea. During the change of plea colloquy, the district court con rmed that Sprenger had carefully reviewed the factual basis set forth in the plea agreement and that he was satis ed that everything in the factual basis was accurate: THE COURT: Okay. Now, do you understand, again, in this plea agreement that you’ve entered into with the government that [the agreement’s] factual basis is essentially a written confession of why you’re guilty of the charge in Count One, why you’re guilty of the charge in Count Four, and also confesses to committing other conduct that will be considered at sentencing in this case? Do you understand that’s the nature of what the factual basis is? THE DEFENDANT: Yes, Your Honor. THE COURT: All right. And understanding that’s essentially a written confession to conduct No. 19-2779 that will support the convictions in this case, are you completely satis ed that everything that is set forth in that factual stipulation in the plea agreement is completely 100 percent accurate? THE DEFENDANT: Yes, Your Honor. THE COURT: Before you signed the plea agreement, did you have the opportunity to go through the factual basis very carefully? THE DEFENDANT: I did, Your Honor. THE COURT: And did you go through it very carefully? THE DEFENDANT: Yes, Your Honor. THE COURT: Along the way, before nal izing [sic] the plea agreement, did you have the opportunity to make changes to that factual basis to correct anything that you thought was not perfectly accurate? THE DEFENDANT: I didn’t need to. THE COURT: All right. But you had that opportunity? THE DEFENDANT: I did, yes. THE COURT: And you found from the getgo that it was completely accurate? THE DEFENDANT: Yes, Your Honor. THE COURT: All right. So you have no quibbles at all with the factual statements that are made in that factual basis? 5 6 No. 19-2779 THE DEFENDANT: No, Your Honor. R. 72 at 30–31. Based on Sprenger’s responses to these questions, the very detailed factual stipulation included in the plea agreement, and the government’s pro er of what the evidence would show at trial, the district court determined that there was a su cient factual basis to support Sprenger’s guilty plea to counts 1 and 4. Before sentencing, the Probation O ce prepared a Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”) which contained, in pertinent part, a summary of Sprenger’s o ense conduct for his count 1 and count 4 convictions and count 2 stipulation. The PSR parroted details from the plea agreement’s factual basis. Subsequently, at the sentencing hearing, the district court asked Sprenger’s counsel, “are there any statements of fact included in the PSR that you’re objecting to?” R. 74 at 4. Sprenger’s counsel responded, “No, Judge.” Id. The district court then sentenced Sprenger to 30-years imprisonment on count one and 20-years imprisonment on count four, to run concurrently. Sprenger preserved in the plea agreement the right to appeal the validity of his guilty plea and the sentence imposed. II Sprenger now challenges his guilty plea on appeal, asserting that his guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary and must therefore be vacated. Sprenger expressly preserved the right to appeal the validity of his guilty plea, so he did not waive the challenge he raises on appeal. See United States v. Dowthard, 948 F.3d 814, 817 (7th Cir. 2020). But because Sprenger did not challenge the validity of his guilty plea in the district court, we review the district court’s acceptance of No. 19-2779 7 Sprenger’s guilty plea for plain error. Id. Under plain error review, Sprenger must show: “(1) an error (2) that is plain today, (3) that a ected his substantial rights and (4) seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of the proceedings.” Id. at 818. We determine plain error based on the law existing at the time of appeal. United States v. Williams, 946 F.3d 968, 971 (7th Cir. 2020). Sprenger argues the district court’s acceptance of his guilty plea was plainly erroneous. In support of this argument, he rst contends that, given our recent decision in United States v. Howard, 968 F.3d 717 (7th Cir. 2020), there is no longer a su cient factual basis to establish that he committed the count 1 o ense to which he pled guilty, meaning his count 1 conviction is invalid. He next asserts that since his guilty plea was premised on his now-invalid count 1 conviction, the remainder of the parties’ plea agreement is likewise invalid. Consequently, he claims he is entitled to withdraw not just his count 1 plea, but also his count 4 plea and count 2 stipulation. We address Sprenger’s arguments in turn. A We rst consider the validity of Sprenger’s plea to the offense charged in count 1—production of child pornography with respect to Victim A, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a). The statute underlying Sprenger’s count 1 conviction mandates a minimum of 15-years imprisonment for “[a]ny person who employs, uses, persuades, induces, entices, or coerces any minor to engage in … any sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing any visual depiction of such conduct.” § 2251(a), (e). Sprenger argues his count 1 conviction is invalid because, although he produced images involving Victim A in which he himself engaged in sexually explicit 8 No. 19-2779 conduct, those images are not child pornography since they do not show Victim A engaged in sexually explicit conduct herself, as required by § 2251(a). We agree, as does the government. In the plea agreement, Sprenger admitted that the following facts establish he is guilty of committing the o ense charged in count 1: he took photographs of Victim A while she was sleeping and in them, he photographed his naked, erect penis next to Victim A’s face, and his own face, with tongue sticking out, next to Victim A’s clothed groin. He also admitted in the plea agreement that he used Victim A to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct. At the change of plea hearing, the district court inquired about the sexually explicit conduct in these photographs and both Sprenger and the government agreed that “the sexually explicit conduct was not of victim A but was of Mr. Sprenger.” R. 72 at 32–34. Notwithstanding, the district court concluded, and the parties agreed, that there was a factual basis to support Sprenger’s count 1 plea. We have since decided that Sprenger’s conduct, as admitted in the plea agreement and at the change of plea colloquy, does not constitute the production of child pornography within the meaning of § 2251(a). In Howard, we held that § 2251(a) requires that the o ender create images that depict a minor, and not the o ender alone, engaged in sexually explicit conduct. 968 F.3d at 721. In that case, we read § 2251(a)’s language as requiring “the government to prove that the offender took one of the [statute’s] listed actions to cause the minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of creating a visual image of that conduct.” Id. (emphasis in original). And given the defendant in Howard created images of No. 19-2779 9 himself masturbating next to a clothed, sleeping minor, we vacated his conviction because the images he created were not child pornography as they showed only him and not the minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Id. at 718, 724. So too here. Because the photographs Sprenger took depicted himself but not Victim A engaged in sexually explicit conduct, Sprenger’s conduct does not qualify as a violation of § 2251(a). Accordingly, it is clear today that the district court plainly erred in accepting Sprenger’s plea to count 1. Sprenger has therefore satis ed the rst two requirements for plain error correction. Sprenger contends, and the government agrees, that Sprenger has also met the other two requirements. Indeed, the government acknowledges that there is more than a reasonable probability Sprenger would not have pled guilty to count 1 had he known of Howard, and hence, the error with count 1 a ected Sprenger’s substantial rights and seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the proceedings. We see no reason to disagree with the parties and accept their contentions that the district court plainly erred in accepting Sprenger’s count 1 plea and that Sprenger is therefore entitled to withdraw that plea. B Given Sprenger’s count 1 conviction is invalid, we next consider whether that invalidates the remainder of the parties’ plea agreement. When a defendant enters a guilty plea to multiple counts and one plea is subsequently invalidated, we consider whether the defendant’s plea to the remaining counts “represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant.” North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 31 (1970); see McKeever v. Warden SCI-Graterford, 486 F.3d 81, 86 (3d Cir. 2007) (“We decline to 10 No. 19-2779 adopt a rule that renders a multi-count plea agreement per se invalid when a subsequent change in the law renders a defendant innocent of some, but not all, of the counts therein and reject the argument that such a plea could never be entered by a defendant voluntarily and intelligently.”). But as we have indicated previously, “there is no absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea … and a defendant seeking to do so faces an uphill battle after a thorough Rule 11 colloquy.” United States v. Bradley, 381 F.3d 641, 645 (7th Cir. 2004) (quotations and citation omitted). In fact, we have an “obligation to ensure that guilty pleas are not lightly discarded because of the presumption of verity accorded the defendant’s admissions in a Rule 11 colloquy.” Id. (cleaned up). Sprenger nevertheless argues that his entry into the remaining portions of the plea agreement was not knowing and voluntary because had he known about Howard and had he and the government not been mistaken about the nature of his count 1 charge, which he alleges was an essential element of the plea agreement, he would not have stipulated to count 2 or pled guilty to count 4. Sprenger relies on our decision in United States v. Bradley to support his argument that the entire plea agreement is invalid given the parties’ mutual mistake regarding the nature of count 1. See 381 F.3d at 643. We are not persuaded. In Bradley, the defendant was indicted for possession of cocaine base with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and use and carrying of a rearm during and in relation to a drug tra cking crime (speci cally, the possession of cocaine base with intent to deliver), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Id. The defendant pled guilty to both the drug tra cking and rearms charges pursuant to a plea agreement. Id. However, although the indictment identi ed possession of cocaine base with intent to deliver as the predicate for No. 19-2779 11 the § 924(c) rearms o ense, the plea agreement’s factual basis for the § 924(c) o ense stated that possession of marijuana was the predicate. Id. Moreover, during the change of plea hearing, the government similarly stated that possession of marijuana was the predicate when describing the nature of the § 924(c) o ense. Id. at 644. The defendant did not dispute the accuracy of the government’s statements at the change of plea hearing, and no one addressed that the indictment charged a di erent predicate o ense than the one the defendant admitted to in the plea agreement and at the change of plea hearing. Id. But after the district court accepted the defendant’s plea of guilty to both counts of the indictment, the defendant moved to withdraw his entire guilty plea before sentencing. Id. He argued that his plea to the § 924(c) rearms o ense was invalid because of a misrepresentation or mistake as to the defendant’s criminal culpability on the § 924(c) o ense, and that the entire plea agreement was voidable based on that misrepresentation or mistake. Id. The district court denied the defendant’s motion, but on appeal we determined that the district court abused its discretion because both parties were mistaken about the nature of the § 924(c) charge throughout the plea process. Id. at 644–46. We reasoned that, because the government charged the possession of cocaine base with intent to deliver as the § 924(c) predicate, possession of cocaine base (not marijuana) with intent to deliver became an essential element of the § 924(c) charge. Id. at 646. In this way, the two charges became interdependent. The government could not convict Bradley of the § 924(c) charge without also convicting him of the § 841(a)(1) charge as alleged in the indictment. See United States v. 12 No. 19-2779 Willoughby, 27 F.3d 263, 266 (7th Cir. 1994) (“even if an adequate § 924(c) charge need not indicate by name a particular drug tra cking o ense, by the way it framed the indictment in this case, the government narrowed the legitimate scope of the weapons charge to Willoughby’s use of a rearm in connection with the distribution of cocaine”). We held that, because there was not a meeting of the minds on all the essential elements of the § 924(c) charge due to mutual mistake, the defendant was entitled to withdraw his § 924(c) plea as it was not made knowingly and intelligently. Bradley, 381 F.3d at 647–48. We then concluded that the defendant was entitled to withdraw his plea to the § 841(a)(1) drug tra cking o ense, which was tainted by the § 924(c) plea. Id. at 648. This case is distinguishable. The charges in Bradley were interdependent, which is not the case here. In Bradley, to prove the defendant guilty of the § 924(c) charge, the government was required to prove the § 841(a)(1) charge described in the indictment, which was an essential element of the § 924(c) charge (and, therefore, of the entire indictment and subsequent plea agreement). Because of the interdependence of the two charges, we held that the ambiguity as to the nature of one charge entitled the defendant to withdraw his plea on the other, imputing the mistake concerning the § 924(c) guilty plea to the § 841(a)(1) plea. Id. In this case, on the other hand, no such interdependence exists. Sprenger’s count 1 o ense is not a predicate for his count 4 o ense, nor does the government need to establish speci c production facts to prove the possession violation, so any change in the validity of Sprenger’s count 1 guilty plea does not a ect an essential element of count 4. And although there is no longer a su cient factual basis to support No. 19-2779 13 Sprenger’s count 1 conviction post-Howard, the possession offense does not depend on the same factual basis. See United States v. Novak, 841 F.3d 721, 729 (7th Cir. 2016) (holding that a su cient factual basis for guilty plea existed after defective legal theory was removed). With respect to the possession offense, Sprenger admitted the essential elements of that charge. Notably, even though Sprenger notes in his appellate brie ng that some of the images and videos he possessed either do not or might not constitute child pornography today in light of our decision in Howard (including but not limited to the images relevant to Sprenger’s count 1 and count 2 production charges which involved Victims A and B respectively), 1 Sprenger concedes that “no direct challenge can be made to [his] conviction for possession of child pornography” post-Howard, because that conviction “was based primarily on his possession of videos and images that he did not create.” Appellant’s Br. at 33. Additionally, at oral argument, Sprenger’s counsel admitted that there was an adequate factual basis to sustain Sprenger’s count 4 conviction even postHoward. Since Sprenger’s count 4 conviction is una ected by Howard, this case does not present the same concerns that existed in Bradley. Nor does the “sentencing package doctrine” render Sprenger’s plea deal voidable. Under that doctrine, interdependent sentences create a coherent sentencing package, and the reversal on appeal of one count may render the 1 We need not and do not reach the parties’ dispute over whether Victim B engaged in sexually explicit conduct such that Sprenger’s stipulated conduct constitutes the production of child pornography within the meaning of § 2251(a) post-Howard. Sprenger was not convicted on count 2; he merely stipulated to that offense for sentence-computation purposes. 14 No. 19-2779 underlying package voidable. United States v. Shue, 825 F.2d 1111, 1114 (7th Cir. 1987). But the “sentencing package doctrine generally applies to sentences with interdependent, consecutive counts, and not to concurrent sentences.” McKeever, 486 F.3d at 87. Sprenger’s sentences for counts 1 and 4 were concurrent and, for the reasons already stated above, not interdependent. Furthermore, given that Howard does not call into question Sprenger’s count 4 conviction, we are not convinced that Sprenger would not have pled guilty to count 4 had he known of Howard. As noted, there was overwhelming evidence to support that Sprenger possessed child pornography beyond the images he produced involving Victims A and B. Consequently, even if Sprenger was aware of Howard, he would have had little to gain by going to trial on count 4 and would have lost the bene t of having received a reduced guidelines calculation for his acceptance of responsibility. We are also not convinced that Sprenger would not have stipulated to count 2 post-Howard. The parties vigorously debate in their brie ng whether, post-Howard, the conduct Sprenger stipulated to with respect to his count 2 production charge amounts to a § 2251(a) violation. 2 Even if the district court 2 While Sprenger never physically touched Victim A in the videos relevant to his count 1 production charge, Sprenger did make physical contact with Victim B in the videos related to his count 2 production charge. In stipulating to count 2, Sprenger admitted in the plea agreement that in the videos he created involving Victim B, he made physical contact with Victim B’s clothed buttocks and vagina while she was sleeping, and ejaculated onto her clothed buttocks. Though Sprenger asserts the exact nature of his physical contact with Victim B is unclear from the record, he recognizes “[i]t is possible” his contact with Victim B was more than momentary. No. 19-2779 15 erred in accepting Sprenger’s count 2 stipulation, we could not say that its acceptance of the plea agreement as to count 4 a ected Sprenger’s substantial rights, as required on plain error review. Moreover, withdrawal of the remainder of the plea agreement would not, contrary to Sprenger’s assertions, be necessary to protect the fairness of judicial proceedings and would thus be inconsistent with our standards for plain error correction. See United States v. Taylor, 909 F.3d 889, 893 (7th Cir. 2018) (noting that when we exercise our discretion to remedy plain error, our discretion “ought to be exercised only if the error seriously a ect[s] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings”) (internal quotations and citation omitted). In exchange for Sprenger’s pleading guilty to counts 1 and 4, where count 1 carried a 15-year mandatory minimum and 30-year maximum sentence and count 4 carried a 20-year maximum sentence, the government agreed to dismiss counts 2 and 3. But now that count 1 is invalid post-Howard, Sprenger is left with only the count 4 possession conviction, which carries a shorter maximum sentence than a production conviction, while the government has given up the opportunity to seek a potential conviction on the count 2 production o ense, Appellant’s Br. at 32. This leaves open the possibility that Sprenger’s count 2 conduct constitutes a § 2251(a) violation whereas his count 1 conduct doesn’t. Cf. Howard, 968 F.3d at 723 n.3 (suggesting in dicta that a video showing a defendant “masturbating very close to [a victim’s] face while she sleeps and perhaps momentarily touching her lips with his penis,” could perhaps “be characterized as an attempt at oral sex, which might qualify as engaging the child in sexually explicit conduct”). But again, we do not decide whether, post-Howard, the count 2 conduct Sprenger stipulated to constitutes the production of child pornography within the meaning of § 2251(a). 16 No. 19-2779 which, as explained, might not be foreclosed by Howard. If anyone got the better end of the deal here, it was likely Sprenger, not the government. Given Sprenger seems to be the party who bene ted from count 1’s invalidation, we asked the government at oral argument if it was sure it didn’t want us to void the plea agreement, as Sprenger requests, so that the parties could go back to the pre-plea negotiation stage. Though the government replied that it could seek to void the entire plea agreement under the frustration of purpose doctrine, it stated it wasn’t seeking to do that here, so we take that as a waiver of that opportunity. 3 See Howard, 968 F.3d at 723. Sprenger counters that the government bene ted from the parties’ count 1 error because the conduct underlying Sprenger’s § 2251(a) charges largely drove his guidelines range and sentence, so if those charges were not included in the guidelines calculation, his guidelines range would have been lower. While we acknowledge Sprenger’s concerns that he may have received a lower sentence today, post-Howard, than he originally received, we need not vacate Sprenger’s entire plea agreement to correct any errors in his sentence; a remand for resentencing on count 4—the count still valid postHoward—is adequate to remedy any sentence disparity in light of count 1’s invalidation. See McKeever, 486 F.3d at 88 (collecting cases showing that “it is within the bounds of due 3 We do not suggest that the government is per se entitled to void the plea agreement under these circumstances. We note only that under the frustration of purpose doctrine, a party to a plea agreement may, in certain circumstances, seek to vacate the plea agreement if its purpose for entering into the plea agreement has been frustrated. See United States v. Bunner, 134 F.3d 1000, 1004 (10th Cir. 1998). No. 19-2779 17 process to resentence a defendant on remaining counts after some, but not all counts, are vacated”). We reject Sprenger’s argument that he is entitled to withdraw the entire plea agreement on plain error review based on count 1’s invalidation. For these reasons, we VACATE the judgment on Sprenger’s count 1 production conviction, AFFIRM the judgment on Sprenger’s count 4 possession conviction, and REMAND to the district court to revisit Sprenger’s sentence as needed.
Primary Holding
Seventh Circuit vacates a conviction for the production of child pornography; the images created by the defendant showed him engaged in sexually explicit conduct but the sleeping victim was not engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

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