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United States v. Lifshitz, 369 F.3d 173 (2d Cir. 2004) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
After investigation of online accounts by FBI agents, the defendant was indicted on two counts for violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(2)(A): unlawfully, willingly, and knowingly receiving and distributing child pornography. The defendant pled guilty to count one of receiving child pornography in exchange for the government dropping other charges.
Trial Court Proceedings Edit
Subsequently, defense counsel made a request for the court's departure downward to a noncustodial sentence on the ground of diminished mental capacity at the time of offense — the defendant lacked the ability to control his behavior although he was aware it was wrong. Upon reports generated by three different psychiatrists, the court found a departure downward to a noncustodial sentence was appropriate and permitted the defendant to continue to reside with his grandmother. The defendant was sentenced to three years of probation rather than a prison term.
The court placed two condition of monitoring the defendant's computer on a random or regular basis. First, the defendant had to consent to unannounced examinations of personal computer which could involve copying and retrieval of all data or removal of the computer for further examinations. Second, that defendant had to consent to the installation of systems that will enable the probation office to monitor and filter computer use on a regular basis on any computer owned or controlled by the defendant.
The court held that only upon reasonable suspicion may a probation officer conduct unannounced examinations of any computer equipment at home and controlled by the defendant. The probation officer in his note to the court interpreted this to mean that the court authorized him to monitor the defendant computer on regular basis because if the child pornography is found then the "reasonable suspicion" standard is met. The court confirmed this reading of its holding and the defendant appealed.
Appellate Court Proceedings Edit
The court noted the Fourth Amendment protects individuals from "unreasonable searches and seizures." Although in most cases the Constitution requires a valid warrant or showing of probable cause before the state conducts a search, the court pointed to two areas where a lesser level of suspicion is sufficient to render a search constitutional. Those are probationary and "special needs searches. The court found that supervision in the probation context is a special need of the state. Hence, an infringement of privacy rights for an individual on probation could be constitutional, while unconstitutional when applied to other members of society. Yet, the court found little guidance regarding the validity of search conditions themselves.
The court pointed to the importance of monitoring the defendant's potential continued access to child pornography while on probation, balancing the goals of probation against the potential for public harm by forgoing the defendant's prison time. The court articulated two important governmental interests that had been raised in relevant cases — (1) one involving the probationers' compliance with the requirements and conditions of probation; and (2) the other preventing probationers' future violations of the law.
The government argued that there exists a reasonable suspicion because the monitoring condition is reasonably related to the goal of the defendant's probation. However, the court rejected the argument finding that reasonable suspicion could not be based upon the defendant's status as a sex offender. The court noted that one of the objectives of monitoring condition was to tailor the provision narrowly in order to comply with the Fourth Amendment.
Further, the court noted that there was no indication in the record of the type of monitoring the government intended to implement. The court said that because there were many different techniques of monitoring, an infringement upon Lifshitz's privacy would be determined based upon the measures implemented to monitor. Nonetheless, the court held that monitoring condition was necessary to prevent Lifshitz from committing further child pornography offenses. Otherwise, Lifshitz should have served his time in jail and have no access to any computers.
Therefore, the first condition was vacated and the case was remanded to impose a condition consistent with the opinion.