Tuesday, November 14th, 2023

In a summary order, the Second Circuit vacates a district court’s judgment imposing a complete ban on internet use, as a condition of supervised release. The Circuit concludes that it’s “substantively unreasonable” to impose such a ban on someone whose offense involved child pornography, and no evidence suggested he “is likely to seek out children on social media or prey on them in reality.” United States v. Gonyea, Nos. 22-1722-cr, 22-1727-cr (2d Cir. Nov. 13, 2023) (C.J.J.’s Jacobs, Lohier, Lee) (“Summary Order”).

I. Background

In 2017, Appellant was convicted of one count “of receiving child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252A(a)(2)(A) and (b)(1)” and sentenced to 72 months’  imprisonment “and a life term of supervised release.” Order at 3.

In 2021, after his release from custody, Probation Officers discovered that he had “created two email accounts but failed to disclose them to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services,” as required by the terms of his supervised release. Id. Probation Officers also “seized an unauthorized cell phone . . . containing at least three images of child pornography.” Order at 3-4.

After Gonyea admitted to several supervised release violations, the district court revoked his supervised release and sentenced him to a term of imprisonment “and a new life term of supervised release.” Order at 4. In addition, he “separately  pleaded guilty . . . to one count of failing to register the two email addresses as required by SORNA,”, and he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment “and a five-year term of supervised release.”  Id.

In both judgments, the district court imposed a special condition of supervision “forbidding Gonyea from access[ing] the internet from any computer or internet capable device at any location unless authorized by the Court, or as directed by the U.S. Probation Office upon approval of the Court.” Order at 4. The special condition was to “remain in effect until such time the Court determines such ban is no longer necessary, based upon the Court’s evaluation of [Gonyea’s] risk and needs, along with consideration of the factors outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).” Order at 4.

II. Second Circuit agrees with Appellant that the “imposition of a total internet ban is substantively unreasonable.” See Order at 5

The Circuit notes that in the modern world “‘access to the Internet is essential to reintegrating supervisees into everyday life, as it provides avenues for seeking employment, banking, accessing government resources, reading about current events, and educating oneself.’” Order at 6 (quoting United States v.  Eaglin, 913 F.3d 88,  98 (2d Cir. 2019)).

Consequently, the Circuit has “‘affirmed a sentence that imposed a complete internet ban where ‘the likeliest consequence if less restrictive measures should fail [was] that [the offender] could use the Internet to locate children and lure them to sexual abuse,’ but we have vacated a similar sentence where ‘the likeliest consequence if a less restrictive measure should fail would be that the offender would download and distribute child pornography.’” Order at 6 (brackets in  original) (quoting United States v. Johnson, 446 F.3d 272, 283 (2d Cir. 2006)).

The Circuit concluded that “Gonyea’s case falls into the latter category.” See Order at 6. Thus  it said: “We agree with Gonyea that the District Court’s imposition of a total internet ban is  substantively unreasonable.” Orderg at 5 (emphasis added).

The Circuit observed that, although Gonyea’s crime “was serious and he has reoffended,” he hasn’t “‘use[d] the Internet to prey on children or otherwise endanger the public.’” Order at 6-7 (quoting Eaglin, 913 F.3d at 97). The “‘direct harm to children’ in this case ‘was inflicted previously, when the pornographic images were made, and the lesser harm caused by trafficking can be largely remedied afterward, by destroying copies of the material and returning the offender to prison’.” Order at 7 (quoting Johnson, 446 F.3d at 283).  Thus, given “the record’s dearth of evidence suggesting that [Gonyea] is likely to seek out children on social media or prey on them in reality,” the Circuit vacated the district court’s judgments “as to the internet ban” and remanded for further proceedings.  Id. at 7, 8  (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

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