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Ninth Circuit Remands Case for Unconstitutionally Vague Supervised Release Conditions

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In United States v. Evans, Nos. 16-10310, 16-10311, the Ninth Circuit vacated terms of supervised release handed down by the Northern District of California because they were unconstitutionally vague.

Evans was charged with a probation violation as well as felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. Evans was sentenced to two years for the supervised release violation to be ran consecutively with 57 months of imprisonment for the felon in possession charge. This was in addition to three years of supervised release subject to both standard and special conditions of supervised release.

Evans argued on appeal that several conditions of supervised release were unconstitutionally vague. “A condition of supervised release violates due process ‘if it either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application.’”

On appeal, Evans challenged a condition preventing him from associating with “any member of the Down Below Gang: “The defendant shall have no connection whatsoever with the Down Below Gang or any other gang. If he is found to be in the company of such individuals or wearing the clothing, colors or insignia of the Down Below Gang, or any other gang, the court will presume that the association was for the purpose of participating in gang activities.”

The Ninth Circuit said that the district court did not abuse its discretion in imposing the condition as he had been linked to that gang and its members. His prior supervised release conditions prohibited him from entering the district where the Down Below Gang congregated.  The condition was found not to be procedurally unreasonable. Although the court did not explain its reasoning for this condition, there was enough information in the record as to what the Down Below Gang was and Evans’ connection to them for the condition to stand. Similarly, the requirement that he have “no connection whatsoever with the Down Below Gang or any other gang” is not vague and overbroad because the court construed there to be a mens rea requirement to that condition. However the condition also said “If [Evans] is found to be in the company of [gang members] or wearing the clothing, colors or insignia of the Down Below Gang, or any other gang, the court will presume that the association was for the purpose of participating in gang activities.” The Ninth Circuit found this to be inappropriate because it removes the requirement that the government prove mens rea in a future revocation proceeding. As such, this sentence was found to be overbroad and was sent back to the district court to be removed.

Similarly, three standard conditions were also found to be vague. Standard Condition 4 requires Evans to “support his or her dependents and meet other family responsibilities.” Evans challenged this saying that “meet other family responsibilities” is too vague and does not alert him as to what he is supposed to be doing. The court noted that the United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual 5D1.3(d)(1) omitted the phrase “meet other family responsibilities.”

Standard Condition 5 requires Evans to “work regularly at a lawful occupation unless excused

by the probation officer for schooling, training, or other acceptable reasons.” Evans challenged the word “regularly,” arguing that it has no clear definition and renders the condition unconstitutionally vague. The Court found that there was no meaning for the word “regularly” in this context. The amended condition in 5D1.3(c)(7) requires thirty hours per week. Or it could mean the same amount each week or month. The court found that this did not give him enough information and he could end up finding what this means in a hearing. The court found it to be vague and remanded it.

Standard condition 13 requires Evans “[a]s directed by the probation officer,” to “notify third parties of risks that may be occasioned by [his] criminal record or personal history or characteristics....” Again, Evans said that there was no indication of what “personal history,” “characteristics,” “risks” or “third parties” means. The government argued that he could talk to his probation officer, but the court noted that a vague condition of supervised release can’t be cured by giving the probation officer “unfettered power of interpretation.” Again, the Sentencing Commission amended the guideline to remove the phrase “personal history or characteristics” and “to clarify that a probation officer may only require a defendant to notify specific persons of specific risks that the defendant poses to those persons.”

The Ninth Circuit Reversed, 16-10310, 16-10311

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