What happens when a federal district court imposes a seemingly draconian or arbitrary condition on a defendant's federal supervised release? Is this condition allowed to stand? The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue in United States v. Mears and provided a necessary refresher on the requirement that any federal supervised release conditions must be reasonably related to the offense at issue or the individual convicted.
What is Federal Supervised Release?
Federal supervised release is a type of sentence that sets out a period of time that the defendant remains under court-ordered supervision after completing a prison sentence. The defendant must report to a probation officer throughout the federal supervised release period similar to probation, but it is a different punishment than probation. Probation is a type of punishment imposed by the sentencing judge instead of a defendant serving prison time. Federal supervised release only occurs after a defendant has completed a prison sentence.
The purpose behind a federal supervised release sentence is so that the court can ensure that the defendant is properly assimilating after his release from prison and is not engaging in the same types of behaviors that contributed to the criminal activities for which he was convicted. If the defendant fails to follow all conditions of his federal supervised release, then he can be ordered back to prison and may be required to serve the remainder of his term behind bars.
What Happened in United States v. Mears?
In United States v. Mears, the defendant was convicted on several counts of child pornography offenses. He was sentenced to a lengthy prison term and then federal supervised release at its conclusion. Two of the conditions of his release were that he had to attend a drug and alcohol program at his own cost and also abstain from the use of drugs and alcohol for the duration of his federal supervised release term.
The government and the defendant in United States v. Mears agreed that the district court erred in imposing the special conditions on his federal supervised release. The defendant had no history of drug or alcohol abuse, and drugs or alcohol were not linked to any of the offenses for which he was convicted. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and ruled that it was plain error for the district court to impose those conditions of the defendant's federal supervised release. The case was remanded to the district court for the purpose of removing those conditions.
The Reasonableness of Federal Supervised Release Conditions
Even though some special conditions of federal supervised release may seem like decent rules for someone to live their life by, this does not necessarily mean that the court can require them in every circumstance. One way that a court could impose a condition that seems overbearing or almost paternal in nature is that the judge may consider the specific condition of the defendant. For example, if a defendant has a history of drug or alcohol use, a condition of federal supervised release that barred the defendant from consuming alcohol would be reasonably related. This is especially true if it was shown that the defendant’s drug or alcohol use contributed to his criminal activities.
However, the Second Circuit's ruling in United States v. Mears serves as a timely reminder that a district court may not get carried away in imposing conditions on federal supervised release that do not relate to the crime.
Appealing Conditions of Federal Supervised Release
Although the Second Circuit undertook a review of the district court's sentence in United States v. Mears based on plain error analysis, a defendant is entitled to appeal conditions of his federal supervised release under other circumstances. One of the reasons why a defendant must take the conditions of his federal supervised release sentence seriously is that the defendant could end up back in prison if he is found to be violating the conditions of release. Thus, if a defendant's federal supervised release includes a condition that the defendant would almost certainly violate, it is worth exploring all possible appeal options for that condition.
If you or a loved one believe that a condition of federal supervised release has been imposed that is not fitting with the crime committed or the known behaviors of the defendant, then you should consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney, such as Brandon Sample, Esq., to explore what options you may have to mount a worthwhile appeal.
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