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Appeals Court Strikes Down Stringent Sex-Offender Probation Conditions

Charles Murray was sentenced to 95 months' imprisonment after he pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography, and as part of that sentence was required to fulfill "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," according to the decision.

After he was released from prison Murray moved from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to the Western District, and that District assumed jurisdiction over him for the remainder of his term of supervised release. The Probation Office in the Western District proposed conditions that were duplicative of those already in force in the Eastern District, but also included newer, more stringent condition that Murray objected to.

The Probation Office mandated that he participate in a mental health/sex offender treatment program, submit to polygraph testing, register as a sex offender, not possess sexually explicit material, 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 record if he used a computer at work, provide Probation 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 a violation of a condition of supervision.

Murray's argument on appeal was that his court-ordered conditions of supervised release previously imposed should not be changed because he had never violated them, and that Probation in the Western District had not explained why those original conditions were now inadequate. Probation in response to Murray's complaints retracted the required mental health treatment and possession of equally-explicit material conditions.

At the hearing before the district court on the new conditions, the court adopted all of the new conditions, including the ones withdrawn by Probation. Murray's Motion for Reconsideration was denied, and Murray appealed. The court reviewed for abuse of discretion. U.S. v. Smith, 445 F.3d 713 (3d Cir. 2006).

After noting that 18 U.S.C. Section 3583(e)(2) provides that a court can modify provision of supervised release after considering the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. Section 3553(a), after a hearing with the party present, it further noted that the circuits were split on the issue of whether a court must find "new or unforeseen circumstance" before it may modify conditions. See: U.S. v. Garrasteguy, 559 F.3d 34, 43, n.12 (1st Cir. 2006). The court also said, "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 Murray's move to a new District was a "changed circumstance" making review appropriate, the issue of the new modifications still had to be considered. Under Section 3553(a), the primary purpose is to reintegrate offenders into society rather than punish them. U.S. v. Albertson, 645 F.3d 191 (3d Cir. 2011).The Appellate Court stated that the district court had not explained why the more stringent mod­ifications were now necessary, nor did it explain why the previous conditions had created any difficulty with the supervision of Mr. Murray.

Because of this lack of clarity, the Appellate Court said, "we will vacate the Orders imposing the 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." Any "restriction must result in a benefit to public safety." U.S. v. Thielemann, 575 F. ed 265, 273 n. 15 (3d Cir. 2009), citing U.S. v. Loy, 237 F.3d 251, 266,(3d Cir. 2001).

See: U.S. v. Murray, 11-3196 and 11-3197, U.S. Crt. of Appeals, 3rd Cir, (2012).

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Related legal case

U.S. v. Murray