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Web restrictions on criminal defendants

Courts have prohibited criminal defendants from using the internet as a condition of their probation or supervised release in sexual assault or other sexual offense cases. However, the U.S. Supreme Court recently recognized evolving technology and free speech protections while overturning a North Carolina law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing internet websites that could enable direct communications with minors.

In the case, the defendant was convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl when he was 21-years-old. Several years later, he boasted on Facebook under a different screen name about having a citation dismissed in traffic court.

The police obtained a search warrant and discovered that the person who posted on Facebook was the convicted sexual offender. This defendant was later convicted of violating a North Carolina law that forbids convicted sexual offenders from using social-networking websites.

Th U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed this conviction in June because of the First Amendment protections for free speech. It found that the law was too expansive because it prevented sex offenders from gaining access to the Internet's large and democratic sources of information on employment, news and ideas that are unrelated to crimes or potential harm to children.

One justice concurred and said that a more limited North Carolina law would be valid because of the state's interest in blocking sex offenders. As written, it limits access to legitimate sites such as Amazon, WebMD and major news sites.

However, the internet cannot be divided into safe and unsafe zones. Mainstream sites could be compromised by unlawful behavior because they invite user engagement. The Court also did not directly address where restrictions were imposed when the internet was used for fraud or to obtain access to terrorism websites to build weapons or commit violence.

As courts deal with this decision, it is foreseeable that these restrictions may be enforceable where a defendant agrees to withdraw from the internet in return for lower jail sentence. They may also agree to surrender their access to assure judges that they will not engage in sexual harassment or abuse over the internet when they return to the community.Alleged sexual offenders face serious long-term consequences, such as these restrictions or placement on a sex offender registry.

Source: The Crime Report, "Do criminal defendants have web rights," James Trusty, Aug. 17, 2017

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