When a defendant is convicted and ordered to serve a period of probation, the court, not a government agency, sets conditions of probation. This is true whether the accused is prosecuted in a state or federal court. Only parolees have their conditions of release administratively set by the Department of Corrections.
Generally, court-ordered probation conditions must reasonably relate to the crime for which the defendant is convicted and are not modified unless
a person violates his or her probation or something else happens which gives the court a reason to change the conditions
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ruled recently that a defendant could have his conditions of supervised release modified after he was released from federal prison to impose a sexual deviancy evaluation, even though sexually deviant conduct was not an element of his crime. Furthermore, the government was excused from proving any changes in the defendant’s circumstances warranting the new condition.
The unanimous decision has far-reaching implications for defendants being released from custody and essentially permits the government to add conditions after-the-fact even though the defendant has done nothing further to warrant them.
U.S. v. Bainbridge (Case No. 13-30017, 9th. Cir., March 6, 2014)
Defendant Gerald Lynn Bainbridge pleaded guilty to assault with intent to kidnap in 2006. He admitted that he and a co-defendant were driving a motorhome in Idaho when they stopped to offer a ride to a disabled woman walking down the road. When she was inside the vehicle, the men shoved her onto the bed and bound her hands behind her back. Bainbridge’s co-defendant then raped her while the defendant drove the motorhome away.
Bainbridge also admitted to sexually assaulting the woman. In a plea agreement, he accepted a 97-month sentence and three years of supervised federal release. The U.S. District Court judge who sentenced him ordered a special condition of his release that he register as a sex offender.
However, the judge decided not to impose any other sex-offender related conditions, although the judge left open the possibility for the probation department to address that issue “at a later time” by requesting a modification of his conditions.
Bainbridge served his prison term and began serving his supervised release. His probation officer then filed a motion with the sentencing court to modify Bainbridge’s conditions to include the following:
- That he “participate…in an evaluation for sexual deviancy” at which he must “agree to waive any right to confidentiality…;”.
- That he “successfully complete any course of treatment related to his offense…;”
- That he “participate in polygraph testing…to monitor his compliance with treatment conditions and supervised release;” and
- That Bainbridge minimize his contact with minor children.
Although the government had not alleged that the defendant had violated his probation conditions, the sentencing court granted the government’s request for a sexual deviancy evaluation. The court said the evaluation was necessary in order to determine whether the probation officer’s other requested modifications should be imposed.
On appeal, Bainbridge objected to the district court’s approval of the sexual deviancy evaluation, arguing that the court abused its discretion because it lacked jurisdiction to modify his conditions absent a “change in circumstances,” according to his interpretation of Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 32.1 and federal law (18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(2)).
Did the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court Rule?
The federal panel rejected the defendant’s argument and affirmed the lower court’s decision. The court held that “[a]lthough it may be ‘inefficient to omit important conditions and later, upon further reflection, petition the court to incorporate such conditions, the relevant statutes and rules do not prohibit this practice'” (Citing United States v. Davies, 380 F. 3d 329 (8th Cir. 2004)).
Thus, the sentencing court may grant modification of the defendant’s conditions of supervised release, even though he did not violate his conditions, nor had his circumstances changed in another way.
The court reasoned that “[a] condition of supervised release does not have to be related to the offense of conviction because the sentencing judge is statutorily required to look forward in time to crimes that may be committed in the future by the convicted defendant” (Citing United States v. Blinkinsop, 606 F. 3d 1110, 1119 (9th. Cir. 2010)).
The panel concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion by requiring Bainbridge to undergo sexual deviancy evaluation as a condition of his supervised release.
Was This a Fair Decision?
This is a very disappointing and dangerous ruling. Essentially, the Ninth Circuit has held that probation conditions that were agreed to during plea bargain negotiations can be modified at the government’s discretion and without cause.
Basically, this ruling gives the government – a probation officer or a prosecutor, for example – a second crack at getting probation conditions imposed that it neglected to request prior to a defendant’s guilty plea.
Indirectly, the federal panel has crippled a defendant’s ability to make an informed, intelligent decision regarding the consequences of pleading guilty. This decision has serious implications on a defendant’s constitutional right to be treated fairly throughout a criminal case.
What Does This Decision Mean For You?
A defendant who accepts a plea bargain should be able to rely on promises made during plea negotiations without fear that the conditions will change, unless he or she does something else in the future to warrant a change.
Disturbingly, this decision casts doubt on whether a defendant can ever rely on the word of a court official. Unofficially, the Ninth Circuit has said that a signed plea agreement may be invalidated whenever the government chooses.
If you are facing criminal charges, you should be aware of this decision before you agree to a plea bargain, particularly one with probation or supervised release conditions. We strongly advise that you consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney early on, so you can make informed decisions on whether to plead guilty or go to trial.
Unlike a jury verdict, which may be appealed if mistakes that were made can be shown, it can be very difficult to withdraw a guilty plea if you feel your rights were violated after the plea was entered.
What do you think about this decision and how it affects your rights? Please share your thoughts.