Court Strikes Probation Restrictions Banning Teen From Using Encryption, Accessing Internet For Personal Reasons

from the not-just-unreasonable,-also-stupid dept

The Appeals Court of California has examined a set of release restrictions imposed on a teen convicted of minor sodomy against his girlfriend. The lower court -- realizing it was being asked to step in and act as a proxy parent for the teen's internet use -- handed down a lengthy list of restrictions supposedly aimed at keeping the teen from committing further criminal acts. This included several restrictions on the teen's internet use, for reasons only apparent to the lower court. (h/t Volokh Conspiracy)

Fortunately, the Appeals Court has struck many of these restrictions, finding most of them overly-broad at best, and unreasonably (and unconstitutionally) restricting at worst. Most of these seem to have stemmed from the teen's admission that he masturbated to internet porn once a week -- something that could be said for a great many US citizens of many ages. That the court connected this to the crime committed appears to be the result of a prudish mindset: one that still believes access to pornography leads to criminal sexual acts, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

Nevertheless, the lower court felt the way to righteousness led through cutting Mike H. (as the court refers to the minor) off from the internet as much as possible. The Appeals Court does some drastic pruning of the lower court's order, starting with bringing the case up to date to establish that the restrictions imposed had very little to do with the criminal act the teen was charged with. From the decision [PDF]:

Mike stated he had anal sex with C.C. because she was his girlfriend; he denied bribing her, telling her not to tell anybody, or keeping her from calling for help. There is no indication Mike used the Internet, a computer, or social media to contact or lure C.C. or otherwise plan his offense. Mike and C.C. communicated by text message, and Mike denied planning or fantasizing about the offense ahead of time.

Afterwards, Mike felt it was the "stupidest thing" he had ever done. The probation officer believed Mike was at "low risk for recidivism"; the psychologist agreed, stating Mike's "[r]isk factors for sexual acting out appear to be low." He had never committed a sex crime before and had not reoffended at the time of sentencing.

This was the "minor sodomy." Mike was 14. His girlfriend was 15. There was some question as to whether the act was wholly consensual, but Mike's plea deal reduced the charges to this single count.

Next, the court addresses the many, many stipulations put in place by the lower court at sentencing. A great many of them are either overly-broad, unconstitutional, or completely ridiculous. All of the restrictions hang on the sheerest of legal connective tissue.

The only connection between Mike's admitted offense of sodomy on a minor and computers or the Internet was Mike's admission to the probation officer he masturbated approximately once per week while viewing Internet pornography on his smartphone. Although the court acknowledged Mike's offense did not involve a computer or the Internet, it found the restrictions warranted because Mike had used his smartphone to access inappropriate websites.

Here are the first four restrictions the Appeals Court found unconstitutional.

Condition 39 prohibits Mike from knowingly accessing the Internet or any online service without supervision by a parent, legal guardian, or teacher. Condition 54 prohibits him from having a social media page or using MySpace, Facebook, or similar social media programs. Condition 58 prohibits Mike from knowingly using any electronic device (such as a computer or smartphone) "for any purpose other than school-related assignments, or legitimate work or personal purposes," as defined by the probation officer, and requires Mike's use of electronic devices to be supervised "by a responsible adult over the age of 21 who is aware that the minor is on probation, is aware of the minor's charges, and is aware of the limits on the minor's computer use." Finally, condition 59 prohibits Mike from using a computer "for any purpose other than school related assignments" and requires supervision of computer use in school and in the common area of his home.

Addressing these in bulk, the court says the restrictions are not only unconstitutional, but serve no purpose whatsoever in terms of rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.

Using a computer or the Internet is not inherently criminal, and the court acknowledged the crime did not involve a computer or the Internet. Mike did not use the Internet, social media, or a computer to communicate with C.C. or otherwise facilitate his offense.

[...]

Here, as in J.B. and Erica R., there is no relationship between the minor's admitted conduct of sodomy of a minor and his use of the Internet or electronic devices. There is little reason to believe broad Internet and electronics use restrictions like the ones imposed here will serve a rehabilitative function by deterring Mike from future criminal activity.

It calls out Condition 59 in particular for being completely unreasonable.

Condition 59 is even more extreme. A blanket restriction forbidding Mike from using a computer for anything other than school-related assignments precludes his extracurricular use of a computer to write letters, create art, use software to learn a foreign language, read the news, check sports scores or movie times, research medical information, and obtain other legitimate information wholly unrelated to his criminal conduct in this case. Such a broad restriction is not narrowly tailored or reasonably related to the state's interest in rehabilitating Mike.

The court also strikes the condition forbidding Mike H. from accessing internet pornography. It notes this imposition plays hell with the First Amendment if not narrowly-crafted. This restriction isn't, so away it goes.

We conclude restrictions on pornography and sexually explicit content are not reasonably related to the state's interest in rehabilitating Mike. There is no apparent connection between the crime and Mike's viewing of Internet pornography or sexually explicit material.

The most ridiculous restriction handed down comes paired with banning Mike H. from creating anonymous social media accounts. The Appeals Court finds the anti-stalking/harassment probation stipulation somewhat justifies preventing Mike H. from obscuring his online identity. But it goes too far when it forbids him from using encryption. As the Appeals Court points out, not only is this stipulation overly-broad, but it's impossible to comply with given the current state of internet-based communications.

Given the ubiquity of encryption technology, condition 45 is overbroad as formulated. As Mike notes, "encryption is standard-issue on every iPhone and Mac, with Google requiring new Android phones to be encrypted; every web page that begins 'https' uses encryption, including, for instance, every page on Netflix.com, every page on Wikipedia, and every page created by the federal government." [...] In recent years, Apple, Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Blackberry have all "announced plans to implement end-to-end encryption on a default basis. This means that encryption is applied automatically without a user needing to switch it on."

The Appeals Court points out that banning someone from using encryption is pretty much the same thing as banning them from using the internet… or a smartphone.

Here, the juvenile court may have reasonably sought to prevent Mike from concealing his online activity or electronic communications through encrypted programs or applications. However, as formulated, condition 45 effectively prohibits Mike from using the Internet or a smartphone. By virtue of accessing certain websites or even turning his smartphone on, he would risk violating the condition. As drafted, condition 45 is therefore unconstitutionally overbroad. It is also impermissibly vague, given other probation conditions allowing Internet and smartphone use.

This is the sort of thing that happens when judges (and prosecutors making probation recommendations) don't understand the technology they're dealing with. It only gets worse when the stipulations are predicated on the ridiculous presumption that viewing porn leads to criminal sexual acts. Fortunately, the Appeals Court has eliminated many of the worst probation conditions. What's left in place won't make it much fun to be Mike H. for the next few years, but that's kinda the point. What won't fly are restrictions that stomp all over a person's civil liberties and basically forbid them from accessing the internet.

Filed Under: california, court, encryption, internet, probation, teens


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2017 @ 9:52am

    I'm confused. What's the crime here?

    Was it non-consensual or is anal sex (still) against the law?

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