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Fourth Circuit: Employment Restriction for Supervised Release Overbroad and Impermissible Delegation of Power to Probation

Sex offenders often face a slew of harsh supervised release conditions and for extended periods of time, sometimes for life. Challenges to these conditions have typically been met with courts saying they were needed “to protect the public,” citing sex offenses as the most serious crimes. That’s exactly what the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia said when it imposed a complete ban on “any type of employment without the prior approval of the probation officer,” in Paul Hamilton’s case. He pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, followed by lifetime supervised release. He objected to the employment and other conditions, but the district court overruled his objections.

On appeal, Hamilton argued the employment restriction was “not reasonably related to the facts of the case” and was “overly broad.” While a district court may impose numerous special conditions, 25 in this case plus the standard mandatory conditions, the conditions still must (1) “reasonably relate” to the offense and (2) be “no greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary.” 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d). The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”) do limit occupational restrictions on supervised release to only cases where there is a “direct relationship” between the occupation and the conduct of the offense, and there is a need to “protect the public because there is a reason to believe that, absent such restriction, the defendant will continue to engage in unlawful conduct similar to that for which the defendant was convicted.” USSG § 5F1.5(a).

Here, the district court justified the employment restriction because of Hamilton’s “ability to come into contact with children that he can prey upon” and in a “multitude of ways” he could contact “potential victims.” But this “all-encompassing restriction” lacked an appropriate nexus to the nature of Hamilton’s offense, the Fourth Circuit said. The Court explained that if the restriction were limited to jobs involving regular contact with minors or gave a “ready opportunity to ply his proclivities for child sexual abuse,” the restriction might be permissible. But “there must be some tailoring of the condition to the circumstances of the case,” the Court said.

The Court cited a second reason the restriction was improper was because it provided the probation officer with “completely unguided discretion” in enforcing the condition. “This condition provides Hamilton’s probation officer with no bounds on how to exercise [their] discretion” and gives the officer “an unfettered power of interpretation that effectively delegates” authority to the probation officer. The Court reminded that it is the court that sets the condition, and the probation officer merely applies it.

The Court also addressed the condition that any internet access must be approved by the probation officer. It recognized that numerous courts, including the Fourth Circuit, have declared internet bans for sex offenders as too strict. “The internet is crucial in finding jobs, paying bills, and navigating life in this digital age,” the Court observed. But Hamilton’s internet restriction was not too broad, the Court said, because probation could monitor his access.

As for the restriction on places Hamilton could visit, such as parks, the Court said he could use “common sense and consult his probation officer” about where he could and could not go.

Hamilton also argued that these restrictions were onerous because they were for the rest of his life, but the Court brushed this objection aside. “The statutory scheme [requiring lifetime supervised release for sex offenders] is not without some flexibility,” the Court said. Section 3583 allows for modification, when warranted, and even termination.

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Related legal case

United States v. Hamilton



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