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Court Adopts Factors to Determine Exceptions to Waiver of Issues Not Raised in Opening Brief, Remands for More Narrowly Tailored Internet Restrictions

In United States v. Albertson, No. 09-1049, the Third Circuit considered yet again whether a defendant’s supervised release term and special conditions were reasonable under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) as incorporated by 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d)(1). Albertson pled to one count of receiving child pornography and received a sentence of 60 months in prison (the mandatory minimum term of imprisonment), along with a 20 year supervised release tail with 8 special conditions. Albertson challenged the length of his supervised release term as well as special conditions that: (1) banned him from associating with children under the age of 18 (other than his children) without his probation officer’s prior approval, (2) banned him from using a computer with internet access without prior written approval of the probation department, and (3) required him to submit to an initial inspection and subsequent inspections of his computer and to allow probation to install monitoring or filtering software onto his computer.

The Court first addressed waiver, because Albertson only challenged the length of his supervised release term in his initial brief. His reason for only raising the challenges to the special conditions in his reply brief was that the Third Circuit issued its opinion in United States v. Miller, 594 F.3d 172 (3d Cir. 2010) a day after his initial brief was filed. The Court noted that normally issues are waived if not raised in the appellant’s opening brief, but there are exceptions in extraordinary circumstances. Relying on the First Circuit’s opinion in In re Kane, 254 F.3d 325, 331 (1st Cir. 2001), the court adopted factors to determine what constitutes extraordinary circumstances. The factors are: (1) whether there is some excuse for the failure to raise the issue in the opening brief, (2) how far the opposing party would be prejudiced, and (3) whether failing to consider the argument would lead to a miscarriage of justice or undermine confidence in the judicial system. Under these factors, the Third Circuit found extraordinary circumstances existed even though Albertson’s reason for failing to initially raise the issue was not compelling in light of the body of case law on computer-related conditions of supervised release that existed before Miller. The most compelling factor was that ignoring overbroad internet restrictions contrary to clear Third Circuit precedent would undermine confidence in the judicial system.

The Court in Miller enunciated 3 factors relevant to assessing whether a supervised release condition is overbroad: (1) the scope of the condition with respect to its substantive breadth; (2) the duration of the condition; and (3) the severity of the defendant’s conduct - particularly whether the defendant used a computer to solicit or personally endanger children. The Albertson court added a fourth factor: the interplay between the prison time served and the term of supervised release, in light of the fact that often times district courts may find that a longer term of supervised release should follow a shorter prison term. The Court also found it relevant to consider the proportion of a supervised release restriction to the total period of restriction, including prison time.

Under these factors, the blanket ban on internet use without probation’s approval was “sweepingly broad” because Albertson never used the internet “as an instrument of harm” and because modern life is extremely difficult without access to the internet. Second, the Court found the duration of the conditions - 20 years - should be considered in light of his age. At 42 years old, Albertson’s 20-year restrictions were basically of the same length as the defendant’s lifetime restrictions in Miller (assuming an 80-year life expectancy - Miller was 60 years old when sentenced). Third, Albertson did not use the internet to actively contact or solicit contact with children. Albertson’s short incarceration period did suggest, however, that a lengthy supervised release tail was appropriate. As such, the Court upheld the 20 year supervised release term, but found the internet restriction condition overbroad and remanded to the district court to consider a more narrowly tailored internet use restriction. The Court also explained that the computer monitoring condition would be perfectly acceptable if paired with a more narrowly tailored and reasonable internet use restriction, so it remanded for reconsideration of that condition in connection with the internet use condition. Further, in light of the fact that Albertson had been charged with molesting his stepdaughter at the time of his federal sentencing (and later convicted), the Court upheld the association with minors condition.

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