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US Parole Restrictions on Computer Access Reversed

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated portions of a district court’s order of supervised release that it found were unnecessary deprivations.

Between December 2002 and mid-January 2003, Thomas Sales used his scanner and printer to make counterfeit $20 bills. Following his arrest and indictment, he pleaded guilty to scanning and recording digital images of United States currency and creating counterfeit currency. He was sentenced to eight months in prison followed by four years of supervised release.

Sales challenged three conditions of his supervised release: (1) participation in outpatient substance abuse treatment and testing for drugs and alcohol; (2) prior approval of a probation officer before using any computer or computer-related device; and (3) all computers he uses are subject to search and seizure, while no modifications of any type may be made to the computer’s hardware or software without prior approval.

The Ninth Circuit held that Sales’ substance abuse history justified the first provision, but found serious problems with the way the other conditions were written. The government sought to justify the second condition at issue on the basis of Sales’ expertise with computers and the fact that he had used a computer and two peripherals to commit his crime.

The appellate court, however, held the second condition was “not reasonably related to the nature and circumstances of Sales’ counterfeiting offense or Sales’ history and characteristics.” While Sales employed “a scanner, computer, and printer to counterfeit currency, his unlawful activity did not utilize any other devices, and in no way involved or relied upon the internet, electronic bulletin boards, or other networks.” Additionally, a search of his computer revealed no other wrongdoing. Thus, the parole condition resulted “in a far greater deprivation of Sales’ liberty than is reasonably necessary to prevent recidivism, protect the public, or promote any form of rehabilitation.”

The condition, as written, could be construed to deny Sales access to any computer, which would hinder his self-employment of “repairing telephones and installing cable lines, home alarm systems, and home computer networks.” The condition was vacated and remanded “to impose more suitable restrictions.”

Ninth Circuit also held the third “search and seizure” provision must be narrowly tailored to comply with the Fourth Amendment. As written, the provision applies to even computers “used only for work purposes.” The appeals court found that condition to be “overbroad.” It also found no justification to require Sales to submit “all billing records, including telephone, cable, internet, satellite, and the like,” as requested by his Probation Officer.

The district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. See: United States v. Sales, 476 F.3d 732 (9th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

United States v. Sales