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Parole officer can’t ban sex offender from internet, NJ Supreme Court rules

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A sex offender convicted of molesting his three daughters cannot be completely banned from using the internet, at least not without a fair hearing first, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The ex-con challenged the state Parole Board’s 2014 decision preventing him from accessing the web for any purpose after he had previously violated the terms of his community supervision for life by looking at online images that “depicted minors in the nude.”

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that the man — who is identified in court papers only by the initials J.I. — is entitled to challenge that ban in a hearing before the board because the internet restrictions placed on him have to be reasonable and tied to illegal conduct.

The opinion reverses a lower appellate ruling in 2015.

The justices said that access to the internet is a basic need because most job seekers these days need it to find and obtain work.

“The absolute restriction on J.I.’s access to the internet may undermine his rehabilitation and hinder his ability to succeed as a free agent in society,” according to the court’s opinion.

In 2013, his parole officer allowed him to create a LinkedIn profile to aid his job search, but later imposed the ban after he caught the man going on other websites for his church and “Rent to Own.”

The man’s lawyer, Michael C. Woyce, said prior to the ban his client had used the internet to access other sites, including financial institutions, his therapist’s website, and religious websites.

“Things that we all do on an ordinary basis and never think twice about.”

Federal courts have upheld total online bans for sex offenders, but only when offenders “have used or have clearly demonstrated a willingness to use the internet as a direct instrument of physical harm.”

Ronald Chen, co-dean and distinguished professor at the Rutgers Law School, said in a time when the internet is so widely available, a blanket ban is not feasible except in certain cases.

“I think with this decision it says that in order to restrict access to the internet, even former sex offenders, the parole board has got to show a particular reason to do so,” he said.

“It says number one, the government has got to show a particular reason, like you used the internet in an underlying offense. And number two, it’s requiring as a matter of due process that the parole officer not just impose these restrictions based on their whim and caprice. They have to articulate a reason for it.”

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The father pleaded guilty in 2003 to molesting his daughters. He was sentenced to seven years, which he served at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in the Avenel section of Woodbridge.

He was subject to three years of mandatory parole supervision and community supervision for life.

Although he was not charged with a new crime, he served a second stint at Avenel from 2010 to 2012 after his parole officer found nude images, “barely legal” DVDs and “artistic” nude photos of pre-teen girls.

The court in this case noted that the sex offender, while he violated the terms of his supervised release, did not break the law by accessing pornography or illegal materials online.

The court said the internet restrictions have to “bear a reasonable relationship to the State’s important interests of protecting the public and fostering rehabilitation.”

Woyce said he believes the decision by the court could have more wide reaching impacts for other people on parole with more people being afforded the right to have a full hearing to determine their status on the internet.

“I think in the larger sense that this case will start to see fewer people being banned,” he said.

Estimating that there may be hundreds of people in the same position Woyce said many more will likely now have at least some internet access, if not more access to the benign sites.

Adam Hochron contributed to this report.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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