A sex offender under lifetime supervision was wrongly banished from the Internet, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
In a unanimous decision, the high court ruled that the state Parole Board went too far when it imposed a total “Internet blackout” on a man who was convicted in 2003 of sexually molesting his young daughters and served two prison terms. The man is identified only by his initials, “J.I.”
The Internet has become a “basic need” in modern life, the justices found, and barring people – even recovering sex offenders – from going online could unduly suppress a “liberty interest” protected by the constitution. People shop, read news, communicate with others, take classes, hunt for jobs and manage their bank accounts on the Internet these days, the court said.
“Access to the Internet is considered to be a basic need and one of the most meaningful ways to participate in the essentials of everyday life,” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the court, adding later that “legitimate concerns about J.I.’s potential abuse of the Internet could have been addressed through less restrictive means.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling was a breakthrough for J.I., who had been rebuffed by an appeals court and multiple times by the Parole Board.
“Essentially, the court really for the first time is recognizing that access to the Internet is a protected interest,” said his attorney, Michael C. Woyce. “His offense was serious – there’s no disputing that – but it had nothing to do with the Internet. This case boiled down to: Having been convicted of a serious crime, may the state take away all your rights to community and the Internet? That’s really what the Parole Board did.”
Woyce had argued that J.I., who is about 66 years old, had a free speech right to access the Internet, but the justices ruled on different grounds. The court said New Jersey’s parole board did not give J.I. enough opportunity to make his case before banning him from the Internet in 2013, a violation of his due process right under state administrative law.
“Internet conditions should be tailored to the individual [sex] offender, taking into account such factors as the underlying offense and any prior criminal history, whether the Internet was used as a tool to perpetrate the offense, the rehabilitative needs of the offender, and the imperative of public safety,” Albin wrote.
Because a state law gives the Parole Board several options for restricting sex offenders’ use of the Internet, “the Legislature evidently did not intend that a total ban on Internet use should be deployed when less restrictive alternatives can achieve the goal of public safety and personal rehabilitation,” the court said, adding that the Parole Board could have required J.I. “to submit to periodic unannounced examinations of any Internet-capable device; to install a software monitoring system at his own expense; and to accede to any other appropriate restrictions concerning the use of an Internet-capable device.”
“The parole authorities do not have unbridled discretion to impose unnecessary or oppressive Internet conditions that do not advance a rational penological policy,” Albin wrote, suggesting the total ban had been “arbitrary and unreasonable.”
A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which represented the parole board, declined to comment.
The state Supreme Court did not outlaw total bans on Internet access for former sex offenders. It noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which includes New Jersey, has allowed such bans under federal law for offenders who “have used or have clearly demonstrated a willingness to use the Internet as a direct instrument of physical harm.”
“This guy, obviously, no one is condoning his conduct at all,” said Ronald K. Chen, the co-dean of Rutgers Law School in Newark, who argued in support of J.I.’s position for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “He committed his offenses in his own household. There’s a difference between those who are in their households and those who are predatory and use the Internet to victimize strangers.”
Chen added, “You cut them off from discourse with society, from practical ways to find a job. Any of us, if we were cut off from the Internet – he couldn’t even have a smartphone – how would we be able to function and reintegrate to society?”
J.I.’s ban was imposed after he requested access to the job-networking site LinkedIn at a time when he was seeking employment. A parole official initially restricted J.I. to using the Internet only for his job search, but after it was discovered that he had gone online to his church’s and therapist’s websites, he was banned outright.
Years earlier, before the total Internet ban was imposed in 2013, J.I. served a prison term from 2003 to 2009 for sexually molesting his daughters, and then another 16-month term from 2011 to 2012 after authorities discovered he had accessed images of nude minors online and acquired a cellphone with Internet capabilities. He is registered as a sex offender under Megan’s Law. The Supreme Court ordered the Parole Board to reconsider his Internet ban.
In a separate case from 2013, the state Appellate Division ruled that the Parole Board could ban registered sex offenders under its supervision from accessing social networking sites such as Facebook, where minors often post biographical details.[“Source-northjersey”]