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May 10, 2019

Split Eighth Circuit panel explores lifetime supervised release conditions for child porn offender

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss an Eighth Circuit panel's work today in US v. Carson, No. 17-3589 (8th Cir. May 10, 2019) (available here). Like many federal sentencing cases, there are lots of small stories wrapped within the numbing reality of an offender with an affinity for child porn and teenage girls receiving mass punishment: e.g., the defendant here got "only" 20 years in prison when his guideline range called for 30 years; even though facing the real possibility of imprisonment until nearly 2045, for some reason "Carson did not submit his own sentencing memorandum"; counsel at sentencing did not object to broad conditions of lifetime supervised release, so they get reviewed only for plain error.

The heart of the legal dispute on appeal is defendant's claim that sentencing court should have had to provide a distinct analysis and justifications for his special conditions of supervised release, one of which included social media restrictions seemingly comparable to what the Supreme Court stuck down as unconstitutional in Packingham v. North Carolina. Here is a portion of the majority's rejection of the claims on appeal:

We next turn to Carson’s argument that Special Condition 16 (the social media restriction) “suffers the same flaws as the North Carolina statute held to be unconstitutional in Packingham.”  The Supreme Court in Packingham considered the constitutionality of a statute prohibiting registered sex offenders from “access[ing] a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members” or from “creat[ing] or maintain[ing] personal Web pages” on such sites.  Packingham, 137 S. Ct. at 1733 (quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-202.5(a), (e)).  The Supreme Court held the statute burdened substantially more speech than necessary to further the government’s interests in protecting minors from sexual abuse.  Id. at 1737–38.  The Court reasoned that “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights,” given the importance of social media for accessing information and communicating with others. Id. at 1737.  Carson argues his court-imposed inability to maintain or create a user account on any social media site falls squarely under the holding of Packingham.

We disagree.  Several of our sister circuits have rejected a similar argument in challenges to supervised release conditions forbidding access to the internet — and effectively to social media sites — without prior approval or monitoring by a court or probation officer.  See United States v. Antczak, 753 F. App’x. 705, 715 (11th Cir. 2018) (unpublished); United States v. Halverson, 897 F.3d 645, 657–58 (5th Cir. 2018); United States v. Browder, 866 F.3d 504, 511 n.26 (2d Cir. 2017); United States v. Rock, 863 F.3d 827, 831 (D.C. Cir. 2017).  These courts have noted Packingham invalidated only a post-custodial restriction and expressed concern that the statute applied even to “persons who have already served their sentence.”  Halverson, 897 F.3d at 658 (quoting Packingham, 137 S. Ct. at 1737).  Because supervised release is part of a defendant’s sentence, Packingham does not render a district court’s restriction on access to the internet during a term of supervised release plain error.  See id.; Rock, 863 F.3d at 831.  We find this reasoning applies with equal force here.  Thus, even assuming the district court’s prohibition on creating or maintaining a social media profile implicates the same First Amendment interests as a restriction on accessing social media altogether, the district court did not commit plain error by imposing Special Condition 16.

And here is the closing paragraph of Judge Kelly's dissent:

I do not minimize the seriousness of Carson’s crimes.  For those he will serve a twenty-year prison term followed by a lengthy term of supervised release.  I also recognize the need to monitor Carson’s conduct upon release.  But Carson was thirty- three at the time of his arrest, and his lifetime term of supervised release could very well last decades. We can only imagine the universe of internet-reliant electronic devices that will pervade everyday life by then.  The length and conditions of Carson’s supervised release may well be justified, but such punishment deserves, at minimum, some reasoned explanation from the sentencing court.  Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.

May 10, 2019 at 12:24 PM | Permalink

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