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Circuit Reverses Internet Ban Condition of Supervised Release As Substantively Unreasonable And An Excessive Limitation on Liberty, Not Reasonably Related To The Offense

In United States v. Eaglin, the Second Circuit (Cabranes, Carney, and Vilardo, by designation) considered and rejected two conditions of supervised release:  a complete ban on access to the Internet and a similarly broad ban on the possession of legal adult pornography.  The first portion of the Court’s ruling is part of a broader trend that recognizes the centrality of the Internet to our modern world; it is essential for participation in legal activities and a blanket prohibition on its use must be supported by a more compelling record than existed here.

Background

Eaglin was convicted twice in state court of engaging in sexual relationships with thirteen-year-old girls in 2003 and 2004 (when he was twenty-one and twenty-two).  After serving a year in prison, Eaglin violated conditions attendant to his status as a sex offender on a number of occasions.  When he attempted to move to New York in 2011, he also failed to register as a sex offender as required by federal law, which led to a new conviction in September 2012.  For this conviction, the District Court in New Hampshire sentenced him to a twenty-one month term of incarceration, followed by fifteen years of supervised release.  In 2014, Eaglin’s supervision was transferred to the Northern District of New York, where he committed additional infractions of supervised release.  These violations led to escalating penalties, culminating in two further terms of incarceration of sixteen months and twelve months.  The procedural history is lengthy due to Eaglin’s record of violating conditions of release.

During sentencing for Eaglin’s most recent violation of supervised release, defense counsel asked that two previously-imposed conditions of release—a ban on the possession and use of Internet-capable devices and a prohibition on possession or viewing of legal pornography—be lifted as not reasonably related to his underlying conviction for failure to register and because they imposed a “greater deprivation of liberty than reasonably necessary.”  The government opposed this request and, instead, urged the court to expand the ban on Internet-capable devices to include a complete prohibition on accessing the Internet. The district court ruled for the government, broadening the Internet ban and holding that both bans were “very, very necessary” because Eaglin used “an Internet-capable device to look for sexual partners and to view pornography,” behaviors it described as “significant risk factors.”

The Circuit Reverses

The Court reversed the imposition of both special conditions.  With respect to the Internet ban, the Court first relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S. Ct. 1730 (2017), to hold that “in modern society, citizens have a First Amendment right to access the Internet.”  In Packingham, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional a criminal statute that made it a felony for sex offenders to access certain social media websites because those sites might be used to contact minors.  Here, the Court noted, the condition imposed was even broader and implicated Eaglin’s “First Amendment right to be able to email, blog, and discuss the issues of the day on the Internet while he is on supervised release.”  And the condition would likely impair his ability to comply with District Court’s requirement that he remain employed, because “to search for a job in 2019, the Internet is nearly essential.”  Indeed, completely banning a person on supervised release from the Internet might impair his rehabilitation generally because “access to the Internet is essential to reintegrating supervisees into everyday life, as it provides avenues for seeking employment, banking, accessing government resources, reading about current events, and educating oneself.” 

The Court also observed that it has previously struck down Internet bans even before Packingham, when imposed as conditions of supervised release, as have several other Circuits.  Going forward, such bans will be permitted “only [in] highly unusual circumstances,” circumstances the Court held were not present here.  The ban had nothing to do with Eaglin’s failure-to-register conviction, nor was there any reason to believe that his prior offenses involved Internet use.  The condition was therefore substantively unreasonable, not reasonably related to sentencing, and a great deprivation of liberty than was reasonably necessary.

The Court also struck down the ban on accessing adult pornography as being substantively unreasonable and not supported by the record or Eaglin’s prior convictions.  “Before imposing a special condition such as this ban on adult pornography, a district court must make factual findings supporting its view that the condition is designed to address a realistic danger and that the deprivation the condition creates is no greater than reasonably necessary to serve the sentencing factors.”  No such record existed here to support the ban:  “the record of any sexual involvement by [Eaglin] with children in the past fifteen years is blank” and his prior offenses did not involve child pornography.

Analysis

The Court took care to note on multiple occasions that the crimes committed here were serious and that Eaglin’s repeated history of violating conditions of release was troubling as well.  The Circuit does not want to restrict the ability of the Court to impose conditions that are proper and related to the defendant’s prior offenses.  At the same time, the Court was also careful to note its concern about the unsupported inferences urged by the government and adopted by the District Court.  Ultimately, the breadth of the conditions imposed and the absence of a supporting record led the Circuit to reverse.  Conditions of supervised release must be imposed with great care, and the Circuit is increasingly alert to the fact that unwarranted conditions can create unnecessary burdens for defendants who are expected to reenter society as productive members.  As the Court noted, a condition of supervised release that makes it difficult for a defendant to seek and retain employment cannot be harmonized with a condition that requires regular employment.  The Circuit also used this case as an opportunity to synthesize its prior decisions with respect to Internet-use conditions and to make clear that a compelling demonstration of necessity must be made by the government for a categorical ban to be imposed.  Defendants should object to conditions when they exceed what is reasonably necessary and should also recognize that the Circuit is now giving closer, less deferential scrutiny to these conditions when reviewing sentences for substantive reasonableness.

-By Jacob Newman and Harry Sandick