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Eighth Circuit Vacates Supervised Release Conditions Prohibiting Alcohol Consumption and Setting Curfew Not Contained in Plea Agreement

by Matt Clarke

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed and vacated a federal prisoner’s special conditions of supervised release prohibiting the consumption of alcohol and setting a curfew.

Under a binding plea agreement, David Bell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute marijuana and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The plea agreement waived his appellate and post-conviction rights with exceptions that included the imposition of a sentence other than the one set out in the binding plea agreement. A presentence investigation report (“PSI”) noted that Bell “consumes alcohol occasionally, primarily on weekends” and uses marijuana “regularly.” 

The court sentenced Bell to 15 months in prison and three years of supervised release, imposing special conditions of supervised release that were not provided for in the binding plea bargain agreement. Those special conditions included a requirement that Bell “not consume or possess alcoholic beverages or beer, including 3.2 percent beer at any time, and [that he] shall not be present in any establishment where alcoholic beverages are the primary items for sale” and that he be at his “place of residence between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., 7 days per week,” except when his work schedule determines otherwise.

In response to Bell’s objection to the special conditions, the judge said he was imposing them because, “I’ve had too many defendants that go out and get to drinking, then they get intoxicated and then they go out and violate their supervised release.... And the same reason I put that curfew on there.... [T]hey violate their probation, they’re out usually past midnight. They’re out on the prowl, and they get into trouble. They get drinking, then they’re out prowling the streets. Now there’s no indication you do that. But I’m going to leave it on there because I’m not even going to give you the chance to be tempted by it.”

Bell appealed the special conditions. The Eighth Circuit first determined that the waiver did not prevent the appeal because Bell was appealing special conditions that were not in the binding plea agreement. Thus, the appeal was of a sentence other than the one set out in the plea agreement. 

Reviewing the special conditions for abuse of discretion, the appellate court noted that it had affirmed such special conditions when the defendant’s history and characteristics or crime support them. In this case, however, the trial court made no individualized finding that Bell was dependent on drugs and susceptible to cross-addiction to alcohol. In fact, the trial court stated that there was “no indication” that Bell engaged in excessive drinking or prowling the streets. 

The PSI report noted that Bell used marijuana “regularly” but did not specify how often. The appellate court had previously held that drinking a beer or two a month and smoking marijuana once every other month did not constitute drug dependence.

Although hundreds of marijuana plants were found in Bell’s basement, they had only been connected to his intent to make money by distributing marijuana. No evidence of the frequency of his personal use was introduced in court. 

The appellate court saw no reasonable probability that the curfew would have been imposed had there been an individualized assessment. Because there was no evidence that Bell was drug dependent or would prowl the streets and the court imposed the special conditions based upon its alleged general experience with other defendants, not findings specific to Bell, the Court vacated the special conditions. See: United States v. Bell, 915 F.3d 574 (8th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Bell



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