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Third Circuit Reverses More Stringent Conditions of Supervised Release

In 2004, Charles F. Murray was sentenced to 95 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography and traveling interstate to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor. As part of his sentence he was required to comply with “various special conditions of supervised release that, for example, require[d] him to register as a sex offender and to submit to unannounced searches of his computer.”

After completing his prison sentence in 2010, Murray moved to the Western District of Pennsylvania, which assumed jurisdiction over him for the remainder of his three-year term of supervised release. The Probation Office in the Western District proposed conditions that were duplicative of those previously imposed by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and District of New Jersey, but also included more stringent conditions “to reflect the language approved by the Court in the Western District of Pennsylvania relative to individuals convicted of similar offenses.”

The Probation Office required Murray to participate in a mental health/sex offender treatment program, submit to polygraph testing, register as a sex offender, not possess sexually explicit materials, consent to the installation of computer monitoring software on any computer he might use, consent to the seizure and removal of all computer hardware or data storage upon reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity, notify his employer of his criminal record if he used a computer at work, provide probation officials with his computer passwords and, finally, submit his person, property, house, residence, vehicle, papers and business or place of employment to a search upon reasonable suspicion of contraband or violation of the conditions of his supervised release.

Murray objected to these additional requirements and argued that his court-ordered conditions of supervised release imposed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and District of New Jersey should not be changed because he had never violated them, and that the Probation Office in the Western District had not explained why the original conditions were now inadequate. In response to Murray’s objection, probation officials retracted the mental health treatment and polygraph conditions, sex offender registration requirement and restriction on possession of sexually explicit materials.

At a hearing before the district court on the new conditions, the court adopted all of the conditions, apparently including the ones that had been withdrawn by the Probation Office. Murray’s motion for reconsideration was denied and he appealed to the Third Circuit. The appellate court reviewed for abuse of discretion.

After finding that 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(2) provides that a district court can modify conditions of supervised release upon considering the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) following a hearing with the party present, the Court of Appeals noted in a September 5, 2012 decision that the circuits were split on the issue of whether a court must find “new or unforeseen circumstances” before it can modify supervised release conditions. The Third Circuit also wrote that “Nothing in the statutory scheme suggests that it should be easier for the Government to make release terms more stringent than it is for the individual to receive mitigation ... [the] rule [should] apply equally to the Government and individual defendants.”

Although it was clear that Murray’s move to a different district was a “changed circumstance” that made review appropriate, the modifications to his conditions of supervised release still had to be considered. The primary purpose of § 3553(a) is to reintegrate offenders into society rather than punish them, the appellate court noted, citing United States v. Albertson, 645 F.3d 191 (3d Cir. 2011). The Court of Appeals observed that the district court had not explained why the more stringent modifications to Murray’s supervised release were necessary after he transferred to a different district, nor did it explain why the previous conditions were insufficient.

Due to this lack of clarity, the Third Circuit stated, “we will vacate the Orders imposing the ... new conditions of supervised release ... and ask the District Court to more clearly explain why these new release conditions are no greater than necessary to satisfy the Section 3553 sentencing factors.”

The appellate court further wrote, “On remand, the [district court] should carefully consider the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors and impose only those of the Government’s requested supervised release conditions that involve no greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary to achieve the purposes set forth in section 3553(a).” See: United States v. Murray, 692 F.3d 273 (3d Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

United States v. Murray