How Much Can A Court Restrict Internet Use Of A Convicted Criminal? Third Circuit Rules That A Complete Ban On Internet Usage Was Too Restrictive

October 12, 2018

Use of the internet for most of us has become a daily ritual that is as habitual as our morning routine. That use can be severely restricted for someone who has used the technology for nefarious purposes, but one recent case discussed how much it can be restricted. The recent case of United States of America v. Holena discussed the constitutional implications of restrictions on internet use of a convicted felon.

Mr. Holena was convicted of using the internet to try to entice a child into having sex. He repeatedly visited an online chatroom in an attempt to entice a 14-year-old boy to meet him for sex and made plans to do so. Unfortunately for Mr. Holena, and fortunately for everyone else, the 14-year-old was actually an FBI agent conducting a sting operation. When Mr. Holena showed up to the arranged meeting he was promptly arrested and charged with attempting to entice a minor into sexual acts. He ultimately plead guilty and was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and a lifetime of supervised release.

After serving his prison sentence, as a special condition of his supervised release, he was forbidden to use the internet without his probation officer's approval and had to submit to regular searches of his computer and home. In addition, he had to let the probation office install monitoring and filtering software on his computer. Mr. Holena violated the terms of his supervised release. The first time, he went online to update social-media profiles and answer emails. The second time, he logged into Facebook without approval, then lied about it to his probation officer. After each violation, the court sentenced him to nine more months' imprisonment and reimposed the special conditions. After the second violation, the judge imposed another condition on his release, forbidding him to possess or use any computers, electronic communications devices, or electronic storage devices, which, given his lifetime of supervision, amounted to a lifetime ban. Mr. Holena objected to this.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that the lifetime ban was more restrictive than was necessary to achieve the desired purpose. According to federal sentencing provisions special conditions of release may not deprive the defendant of more liberty "than is reasonably necessary" to deter crime, protect the public, and rehabilitate the defendant. The Court found that the complete internet ban was too restrictive and would prevent Mr. Holena using Amazon or Google Maps or any other website that is completely unrelated to his crime. Furthermore, the Court found that there were First Amendment considerations in that the total ban prevented a host of protected speech that has nothing to do with his crime and was thus inappropriate. The Court cited a recent case from another jurisdiction finding a ban on sex offenders using social media was unconstitutional and said that similarly in this matter the "wide sweep precludes access to a large number of websites that are most unlikely to facilitate the commission of a sex crime against a child." The Court sent the case back to the trial court and stated that the court must reconsider the imposed conditions and "must also take care not to restrict Holena's First Amendment rights more than reasonably necessary or appropriate to protect the public."

In this matter, the Third Circuit acknowledged that there is utility in restricting access to the internet to someone who utilized it to commit a crime but found that the complete ban on use of the internet simply went too far. While we all want to keep potential victims away from convicted sex offenders, many of us could not even do our jobs without accessing the internet in some way. It is certain that courts will continue to balance these competing interests going forward given that we are living in an increasingly digital world.

If you have been charged with a crime or are subject to conditions that you believe to be unfair, the lawyers at Conway Schadler have extensive criminal and civil experience that can make the difference in these types of situations. Please contact our offices for a free consultation so we can discuss how this substantial experience can be used to your benefit.