Federal Appeals Court questions computer search requirement for gun felon

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  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has tossed out a requirement that a felon in North Carolina imprisoned on gun charges must undergo warrantless computer searches after leaving prison.
  • Appellate judges agreed that the trial judge in the case failed to make an "individualized assessment" explaining the reason for the computer search requirement.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has tossed out a requirement that a felon from North Carolina should undergo warrantless computer searches after serving a prison sentence on gun charges.

Appellate judges agreed Wednesday that the trial judge did not explain why defendant Roger Bryant Locklear should face the computer searches during his post-release supervision.

U.S. District Judge James Dever sentenced Locklear to nearly 10 years in prison in 2020. The defendant had pleaded guilty to one count of possessing a firearm as a felon. After 115 months in prison, Dever’s sentence called for three years of supervised release.

Among the conditions of Locklear’s release: He must “submit to a search, at any time, with or without a warrant, and by any law enforcement or probation officer, of the defendant’s person and any property, house, residence, vehicle, papers, computer, other electronic communication or data storage devices or media, and effects upon reasonable suspicion concerning a violation of a condition of supervised release or unlawful conduct by the defendant, or by any probation officer in the lawful discharge of the officer’s supervision functions.”

Locklear objected to the entire condition, but he focused on the section involving computers, electric communication and data storage devices, and media.

Dever offered the following basis for the condition. “You shall comply with the following special conditions which the Court imposes based on statutory requirements and the nature of the offense of conviction, including your history of substance abuse, [and] the need for
rehabilitation in order to supervise you adequately.”

That explanation fell short, according to 4th Circuit Chief Judge Roger Gregory, fellow Appeals Court Judge Harvie Wilkinson, and District Judge John Gibney.

“’District courts have “broad latitude” to impose discretionary conditions of supervised release,’” the judges wrote in an unsigned opinion. “’But when they do, they have a duty to explain why.’ Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d), district courts ‘may only impose conditions that (1) are “reasonably related” to the goals of deterrence, public protection, and rehabilitation; (2) affect “no greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary” to achieve those goals; and (3) are “consistent with any pertinent policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.”’”

Special conditions of supervised release require an “individualized assessment.” “’[I]n all cases, … the explanation must at least be sufficient “to allow for meaningful appellate review and to promote the perception of fair sentencing.”’ ‘Failure to provide such an explanation constitutes procedural error,’” according to the Appeals Court.

“Critically, in its single, conclusory sentence of reasoning, the district court failed to explain why the computer search condition is appropriate for Locklear,” the 4th Circuit ruled. “That is, its generic reference to the ‘statutory requirements,’ ‘the nature of the offense,’ and ‘the need for rehabilitation’ could be used in sentencing any criminal defendant, regardless of that defendant’s offense, personal characteristics, or history.”

The opinion pointed to a 4th Circuit precedent in a 2020 case called United States v. Arbaugh.

“This case is thus on all fours with Arbaugh, wherein we determined ‘that the district
court committed reversible procedural error by failing to explain why it imposed … four computer-related special conditions’ of supervised release, including a condition allowing
for warrantless searches of the defendant’s ‘computers, telephone, and personal computing

“In that case, the defendant was convicted for engaging in illicit sexual conduct with a minor in a foreign country,” the opinion continued. “There, as here, ‘the district court ordered [the defendant] to comply with these special conditions, but it did not explain why it was imposing them.’ Consequently, the Court found itself ‘constrained by [our] precedent to conclude’ that the district court’s silence ‘violated [the defendant’s] rights’ and precluded our review of ‘the reasonableness of the challenged special conditions.’”

“Given our decision in Arbaugh, it is clear that the district court’s failure to explain the computer search condition was not only error, but plain error,” the appellate judges added.

The case heads back to District Court, where the judge must provide an “individualized assessment of its reasons” for the computer search requirement. “We again express no view on the underlying merits of the condition at issue,” the 4th Circuit opinion concluded.