Monday, September 24, 2012

When Considering a Request By the Government to Modify the Terms of Supervised Release, a Court May Not Impose Any New Terms That Would Create a Greater Deprivation of Liberty Than Necessary to Achieve The Sentencing Goals Established in 18 U.S.C. §3553(a).

     In United States v. Murray, Nos. 11-3196, 11-3197 (3d Cir. September 5, 2012), the Third Circuit considered the question of when it is appropriate for a district court to modify the conditions of supervised release.  District courts have the authority under 18 U.S.C. §3583(e)(2) to change the terms of supervised release after proper consideration of the factors listed in 18 U.S.C. §3553(a).  Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure §32.1(c) requires that a hearing be held before any change in supervision conditions.  Also, the defendant has a right to attend the hearing with his attorney and present mitigating arguments.  The Third Circuit held, in this case, that a district court may only grant a request to modify the terms of supervised release when the changes will not result in a greater deprivation of liberty than is necessary to achieve the purposes of sentencing set forth in §3553(a). When approving new terms and conditions, the district court must explain how the changes are consistent with the goals of sentencing.  The appellate court also reiterated the purpose of supervised release is to promote reintegration into society, not to further punish defendants. 

    Turning to the facts of this case, appellant Charles Murray pled guilty to one count of illicit sexual conduct with a minor (18 U.S.C. §2423(b)) in the District of New Jersey and one count of possession of child pornography (18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(4)(b)) before the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  He served an aggregate term of 95 months in prison for these offenses and was also sentenced to two concurrent terms of three years of supervised release.  Both federal courts imposed special conditions of supervised release related to the nature of his offenses.

    When Mr. Murray was released from prison, he relocated to a town near Pittsburgh and supervision was transferred to the Probation Office in the Western District of Pennsylvania.  Probation sought to modify the terms of supervision to include additional requirements.  Mr. Murray opposed the modifications and additions, arguing that he had not violated any of the existing terms and that Probation had not provided any reason why the original conditions were not sufficient. In granting Probation’s request, the district court simply stated that it did not find any “meaningful difference” between the existing conditions and the modified terms.  The district court then granted the request making only a conclusory statement that the new conditions comported with §3553(a) and would be “positive” for Murray.  

    On review, the Third Circuit first found that appellant’s relocation to another federal district was a qualifying “changed circumstance,” giving the district court authority to review Probation’s request for a modification of the terms and conditions of supervised release.  But the Third Circuit remanded the case because the district court’s ruling was too vague and conclusory, failing to discuss and apply the §3553(a) factors.  The appellate court ordered the district court to clarify why the new conditions were not greater than necessary to achieve the §3553(a) sentencing goals, especially since there was no suggestion that the original terms were not sufficiently effective. The Third Circuit particularly expressed the need for restrictions on access to sexually oriented materials depicting adults to be narrowly tailored, in light of the First Amendment.

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