A convicted sex offender banned from using the internet won a victory in New Jersey’s top court on Tuesday in a case that echoes a larger battle being fought elsewhere in the U.S.
While the New Jersey Supreme Court didn’t address the constitutionality of the internet ban, it characterized it as “overbroad” and ruled the plaintiff deserved a full parole board hearing.
“I think the court found the appropriate balance and realized the importance of the internet in today’s world,” said attorney Michael Woyce, who represented the plaintiff. “I think when many of these statutes were passed, the internet wasn’t so prolific, and the court is getting around to recognizing this.”
The case has similarities to a North Carolina case recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in which a convicted sex offender mounted a First Amendment challenge to a state law prohibiting him from access to social networking sites known to be used by minors. A ruling is expected this spring.
Internet restrictions are common in the U.S., though the specifics often vary, Woyce said.
They also aren’t applied uniformly. Ronald Chen, a co-dean of Rutgers Law School who argued the New Jersey case as a friend of the court, noted recent federal case law has held that it’s “extremely difficult for the government to justify widespread restrictions for access to the internet,” unless there is a compelling reason or unless an offender used the internet for the crime for which he was convicted.
In the New Jersey case, the plaintiff, identified only as “J.I.”, was convicted in 2003 of sexual assault and child endangerment in the molestation of his two daughters. He was committed to an adult treatment center.
He was released on parole in 2009 and allowed internet access but was prohibited from accessing any social networking service or chat room.
The following year, he was barred from using any internet-capable device when it was discovered he had visited websites depicting nude minors; in 2011 he was returned to confinement for having such a device in his possession.
After his release in 2012, he was allowed to use the internet only for seeking employment. After it was discovered he had visited his church’s website and others, his parole supervisor barred him from any internet access or possessing an internet-capable device without permission.
A parole board panel upheld the restrictions in 2014 and denied his request for a hearing, and an appeals court agreed in 2015.
While noting he didn’t condone the man’s violations, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin wrote Tuesday the parole board could have considered other options.
“We cannot ignore that the special conditions that have brought about this appeal were overbroad,” he wrote. “Legitimate concerns about J.I.’s potential abuse of the Internet could have been addressed through less restrictive means” such as periodic unannounced examinations or a software monitoring system.
Albin went on to call the internet “a ubiquitous presence in contemporary life” and said a ban would make it a difficult for a person to function in modern society.
The New Jersey attorney general’s office, which argued on behalf of the state parole board, declined to comment.
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