WICHITA, Kan. (AP) – A blanket ban on Internet use unlawfully deprives parolees convicted of sex crimes of more liberty than necessary because the Internet has become a necessary part of modern life, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said the wording in a standard condition of supervised release used by the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Office for the District of Kansas conflicts with a 2001 ruling from the court because it suggests probation officers can completely ban a means of communication. The court noted that Internet use has become “even more central to participation in the civic and economic life of our society” since then.
However, the appeals court ultimately allowed some restrictions against Kansas parolee Ronald Ullmann to stand in the case at hand. That is because the lower district court had modified them in Ullmann’s case to clarify that it was restricting – not completely prohibiting – his use of computers, cellphones and other Internet-capable devices.
The federal probation office for the Kansas district did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment, and the U.S. attorney’s office declined comment. Ullmann’s defense attorneys did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Ullmann pleaded guilty to making a false statement, a charge that arose from sexually explicit conversations between him and an undercover FBI agent posing online as a 13-year-old. Ullmann was sentenced to five years in 2009, with the prison time to be followed by three years of supervised release. When released from prison in April 2014, he became subject to restrictions on his Internet use.
The federal probation office for the Kansas district told the appeals court that it intends to impose “the standard sex offender supervision condition” as part of its new Computer and Internet Monitoring Program, known as CIMP.
Ullmann had no objection to continued restrictions and monitoring by the probation office, but objected to what he termed as prohibitions on his access to the Internet and use of numerous devices. The district court ordered him to comply with the probation office’s program and clarified the condition does not prohibit him from accessing the Internet or using electronic devices.
The district court retained control over the decisions affecting the scope of his punishment, and delegated to the probation office only “ministerial issues” such as the choice of monitoring software.
The appeals court said the modified restriction in Ullmann’s case is lawful because the district court only clarified that the court was restricting his use of the Internet and other Internet-capable devices rather than prohibiting it.
The appellate judges said that conclusion does not detract from their concern regarding the ambiguity of the wording of the “standard sex offender supervision condition” that the probation office in Kansas intends to impose as part of its policy in the state.
The Internet has become more crucial to participation in employment, communication and civic life since 2001, the appeals court said.
“Internet use is necessary for many jobs, is essential to access information ranging from local news to critical government documents, and is the encouraged medium for filing tax returns, registering to vote, and obtaining various permits and licenses,” the court said.
Other federal appeals courts also have limited or overturned conditions banning Internet use, including the 6th, 1st, 3rd and 7th circuits, the ruling noted.