Monday, April 22, 2013

Sixth Circuit again reverses unjustified supervised release conditions

In a pair of recent decisions, the Sixth Circuit has sharply restricted the authority of district courts to impose supervised release conditions without adequate justification. The first was United States v. Inman, 666 F.3d 1001, 1003 (6th Cir. 2012), a child pornography case in which the court reversed the lifetime term of supervision and a number of special conditions involving drugs, alcohol, and “any device capable of creating pictures or videos,” because the district court had failed to explain its reasoning. The second was United States v. Maxwell, 483 F. App’x 233, 238 (6th Cir. 2012), a SORNA case in which the court relied on Inman to reverse a similar set of “highly restrictive special conditions” because the “sentencing suffer[ed] from nearly identical shortcomings.”

In United States v. Dotson, No. 12-5662 (April 22, 2013), the court continued this apparent trend, “emphasiz[ing] that requiring the district court to adequately state on the record the rationale for the conditions selected aids in assuring that those chosen are applicable to that particular defendant and thus are more likely to encourage his rehabilitation.”

Like Inman, Dotson involved a child pornography offense, which is likely the reason why the district court imposed supervised release conditions prohibiting “exposure to any pornographic or sexually oriented materials,” “sexually oriented telephone numbers or computer services,” and even a “blanket 20-year ban” on internet access.

While the Sixth Circuit acknowledged that these restrictions (or variations on them) might be justifiable in cases such as this, it reversed due to the “dearth of explanation” about why the district court deemed them necessary. Given the “disagreement among the circuits” about the appropriateness of internet bans, and given “the undisputed observation that computers, cell phones, and Internet access play a fundamental role in the modern age” including “in the workplace and educational institutions,” the court found that the district court had failed to justify its imposition of such restrictive conditions. The court even rejected the condition requiring substance abuse monitoring and testing, because although the defendant had “previously sold drugs in order to ‘get by,’” there is “simply nothing in the record indicating whether Dotson has previously abused drugs and would be at risk for future abuse.”

Even under plain error review, the court found that “a remand is necessary so the district court can reconsider several of the conditions imposed on Dotson’s supervised release.”

While the court did not rule out the possibility that the district court could reimpose the same conditions with adequate reasoning, it suggested at least one of the conditions would be difficult to justify in the absence of reasonable accommodations: “On remand, it may be helpful for the district court to ‘consider the ubiquitous nature of the internet as a medium of information, commerce, and communication as well as the availability of filtering software that could allow [Dotson’s] internet activity to be monitored and/or restricted.’”

(In a separate portion of the opinion, the court affirmed redaction of certain portions of the defendant’s incriminating statement, “which illustrated that Dotson had a rough upbringing and had been sexually abused as a child; that he considered his girlfriend to be a ‘blessing’ and had intended to marry her prior to encountering financial difficulties; and his concern that the victim knew he was exploiting her.” Because these portions of the statement “did not make any fact of consequence related to these statutory offenses more or less probable than it would have been without them,” the court agreed with the district court that they were irrelevant and excludable at trial.)

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