U.S. appeals court: Lifetime computer ban for sex offender doesn’t violate First Amendment

By: - November 30, 2020 5:58 pm

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A federal appeals court has upheld a lifetime ban on computer use for a South Florida sex offender who used text messaging to send a naked picture of himself to a person he thought was a 14-year-old girl.

Peter Bobal challenged his conviction on grounds including violation of the First Amendment, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the sanction in a ruling handed down on Monday.

The sentence, which included nearly two years in prison and lifetime conditional release, was “tailored to his offense,” Chief Judge William Pryor wrote. The computer ban was tied to Bobal’s conditional release, although he can ask his probation officer for permission to use computers for legitimate reasons.

Attorneys for the Hallandale Beach man argued the computer restriction violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in Packingham v. North Carolina, in which the court struck down on First-Amendment ground a state law barring registered sex offenders from accessing social media known to attract minors regardless of whether they interacted with minors.

The 11th Circuit panel said there were differences between the cases.

“First, the state law in Packingham restricted sex offenders even after they had completed their sentences,” Pryor wrote.

“Bobal’s computer restriction, by contrast, is a special condition of his supervised release and does not extend beyond his sentence. Second, the state law in Packingham applied to all registered sex offenders, not only those who had used a computer or some other means of electronic communication to commit their offenses,” he added.

“The Supreme Court explained that it was not holding that the First Amendment bars the enactment of more specific laws than the one at issue. Indeed, the court assumed that the First Amendment permits a state to enact specific, narrowly tailored laws that prohibit a sex offender from engaging in conduct that often presages a sexual crime, like contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about a minor.”

Here, “Bobal used an electronic device to attempt to persuade a minor with whom he had never communicated in person to have sex with him. His computer restriction prevents him from engaging in activity that could result in his repeating that offense,” Pryor wrote.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.