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Supervised Release Modifications Allowed: Fourth Circuit

Supervised release modifications are allowed based on changed legal circumstances in the Fourth Circuit in Morris.

United States v. Morris, No. 18-6926 (4th Cir. 2022)

District Refuses Modification of Supervised Release

Morris pled guilty to two child pornography offenses and was sentenced to sixty months imprisonment.  This was to be followed by a term of ten years of supervised release. 

Four years into his sentence, Morris moved to modify eight conditions of his supervised release. Morris argued that six of the conditions restricted his liberty more than necessary.  Also, he argued two other conditions limiting his internet use was unconstitutional. 

The district court dismissed the motion after concluding it lacked jurisdiction to modify Morris’ sentence under 18 U.S.C. 3583(3)(2). Morris appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit.

Appeal of Supervised Release Used Changed Legal Circumstance

Section 3583 provides a district court 

“may modify, reduce, or enlarge the conditions of supervised release, at any time prior to the expiration or termination of the term of supervised release.” 

However, the Fourth Circuit held challenges rest on factual or legal premises that existed at the time of the defendant’s sentencing are impermissible. Under Fourth Circuit precedent, a defendant can only bring a challenge under 3583 based on “new, unforeseen, or changed legal or factual circumstances, including those that go to the legality of the sentence.” United States v. McLeod, 972 F.3d 637 (4th Cir. 2020).

The Fourth Circuit summarily rejected Morris’ challenge to the first six conditions of his supervised release, finding that this argument was available to him at the time of sentencing. The district court therefore lacked jurisdiction to modify them. However, Morris’ challenge to the internet-use conditions relied on a changed legal circumstance unforeseen at the time of sentencing.

Fourth Circuit Supports Modification Based on Changed Legal Status

In Packingham v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court considered a First Amendment challenge to a North Carolina statute prohibiting sex offenders from accessing social media. The Fourth Circuit subsequently relied on Packingham in two recent cases: United States v. Ellis, 984 F.3d 1092 (4th Cir. 2021) and United States v. Hamilton, 986 F.3d 413 (4th Cir. 2021). 

The Fourth Circuit held that Packingham, Ellis, and Hamilton created “new, unforeseen, or changed legal . . . circumstances” related to Morris’ internet-restricting conditions of supervised release. Packingham balanced an offender’s First Amendment right to access certain websites with the state’s interest in preventing sex offenses. 

Ellis established that non-contact sex offenses cannot justify an internet ban absent a connection between the ban and the offense conduct. Hamilton explained using the internet to locate victims may support an internet ban.

Conclusion in Fourth Circuit

Based on these three cases, the appellate court determined the law surrounding internet-use conditions of supervised release had been altered since Morris’ sentencing. As such, the Fourth Circuit held the district court had jurisdiction to consider Morris’ challenges to the two internet-related conditions. The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment in part, and remanded to the court to decide whether to modify these conditions of release.

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