Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Facts of Case Supported Social Media Limitations Guided by Probation Officer

US v. Comer: Comer was convicted of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking after being part of an operation that recruited unwitting young women (including, initially, Comer herself) into prostitution. The recruitment occurred using social media tools, including a dating website. After serving her term of incarceration, Comer began a term of supervised during which she was “communicating with felons by using an encrypted app on her phone” to meet someone she met on Facebook and “maintaining a hidden, unmonitored phone.” In addition to revoking Comer’s term of supervised release, the district court imposed a new condition that she “not have any social networking accounts without the approval of the U.S. Probation Officer.”

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Comer’s sentence, including the new condition. It concluded that the condition was not unconstitutionally vague, holding that while there was some “gray space on the margins” of the condition, there was a “commonsense understanding” of what activity was off limits, which could be supplemented by discussing particular issues with her probation officer. It also rejected an argument that the condition infringed on Comer’s due process right to find and associate with a romantic partner, concluding that even if such a right existed the condition was no greater deprivation on liberty than needed to achieve the goals of supervision. In particular, the court noted that “Comer indisputably weaponized social networks . . . to commit her underlying offense.” Finally, the court found no improper delegation of authority from the district court to the probation officer. As to the probation officer, the court found no error in them sitting at counsel table with the AUSA during the revocation hearing, but suggested it was not a good practice going forward.

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