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8th Circuit: Judges Can Make Staying Off Facebook a Condition of Release

Businessman animated character stopped by large hand coming out of smartphone
By Laura Temme, Esq. on May 21, 2020

Unfortunately for a Missouri man, who admitted to shooting a man to death in 2017, special conditions on his release were upheld by the 8th Circuit earlier this month. Ricky B. Gurley, who claimed he shot the man in self-defense and was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm, challenged the district court's decision to keep him off of social media.

As part of Gurley's supervised release, the district court ordered that "the defendant shall not maintain, utilize, access, or create a user account on any social networking site."

An 8th Circuit Panel made short work of Gurley's appeal, but its decision does leave a few questions open for future defendants.

Bond Revoked Due to Social Media Posts

Before his trial in 2018, Gurley was released on a personal recognizance bond. That bond was revoked a few months later, in part because of concern over his postings on social media. Gurley's supervising officer had advised him to delete his Facebook page after posts came to light where he claimed certain individuals were secretly working with law enforcement. He also had a history of cyberbullying.

The district court described Gurley's posts as "threatening," and concluded that restricting his access to social media was reasonably related to his crime.

Court Finds Bond Violation Enough to Connect Social Media to Sentence

On appeal, Gurley claimed the district court abused its discretion by ordering that, as a condition of his release, he would have to stay off of all social networking sites. Gurley argued that his offense, being a felon in possession of a firearm, was unrelated to the use of social networking sites - and therefore a more significant deprivation of liberty than reasonably necessary.

The 8th Circuit disagreed, finding that the condition was reasonably related because Gurley's social media use was part of the reason his bond was revoked. Therefore, the district court had completed the "individualized inquiry" required by federal sentencing rules.

However, the panel's analysis does little to address when such a release condition is appropriate, and when it isn't. Furthermore, what sites are considered "social media?" How far this holding can extend remains to be seen, but as cyberbullying continues to be a problem, we'll undoubtedly see these types of restraints applied to other criminal cases.

Related Resources:

Handcuffed at School: 8th Circuit Finds 2nd Grader's Rights Weren't Violated (FindLaw's Eighth Circuit)

7th Circuit: Prisoner Cannot Marry His Former Prison Psychologist (FindLaw's Seventh Circuit)

Sixth Circuit Recognizes a Fundamental Right to Basic Literacy for the First Time (FindLaw's Sixth Circuit)

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