Supreme Court skeptical of sex offender social media ban
WASHINGTON — With a nod to the importance of social media in American life, the Supreme Court signaled Monday it could strike down a North Carolina law that bars convicted sex offenders from Facebook, Twitter and other popular sites.
At least five justices, a majority of the court, suggested during argument that they would rule for North Carolina resident Lester Packingham Jr. His Facebook boast about beating a traffic ticket led to his conviction for violating a 2008 law aimed at keeping sex offenders off internet sites children might use.
The state’s lawyer said the law deals with the virtual world in the same way that states keep sex offenders out of playgrounds and other places children visit. More than 1,000 people have been prosecuted under the law, Packingham said in his court filing.
Justice Samuel Alito, who has backed restrictions on speech more often than his colleagues, appeared to be more open to North Carolina’s argument.
But several justices said the law was so broad that it could violate free-speech rights, even of people convicted of sex crimes.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are so popular that they “have become embedded in our culture,” Justice Elena Kagan said.
The 56-year-old Kagan, the youngest justice and seemingly most conversant on the subject, said the law could prevent people from looking at the Twitter feeds of President Donald Trump and other elected officials.
Justice Anthony Kennedy voiced his concerns with the law by reaching back to before the digital age to note that more communication takes place online than in the traditional “public square,” where the court has been skeptical of limits on speech.
Deputy North Carolina Attorney General Robert Montgomery acknowledged that some digital avenues are cut off from people convicted under the law, but he said alternatives exist. “This is a part of the internet, but it’s not the entire internet that is being taken away from these offenders,” Montgomery said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was among those who wondered if a narrower law that specifically tried to prevent sex offenders from communicating with minors through social media might withstand court review.
A more constrained law might be constitutional, lawyer David Goldberg said on behalf of Packingham, but North Carolina’s version goes too far.
“The law does not operate in some sleepy First Amendment quarter,” Goldberg said. Instead, it “forbids speech on the very platforms on which Americans today are most likely to communicate, to organize for social change, and to petition their government.”
Louisiana is the only other state with a law similar to North Carolina’s, although the Louisiana law applies only to people convicted of sex crimes with children, according to a legal brief the state filed with the Supreme Court. But many states have laws that require sex offenders to provide information about their internet use to authorities. Separately, many states limit internet use as a condition of parole or probation.
Packingham, 36, originally pleaded guilty in 2002 to taking indecent liberties with a child. He had been indicted for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old and ordered to register as a sex offender.
In 2010, a Durham police officer was using his own Facebook account to look for people who shouldn’t be on the site. He came across a post from Packingham, who used an alias but also included a photo of himself and linked to an account used by his father and namesake. The officer found six other registered sex offenders in the same session, Montgomery said.
“No fine. No Court costs. No nothing. Praise be to God. Wow. Thanks, Jesus,” Packingham wrote in the post that led to his conviction and suspended prison sentence.
Jury: Private prison ignored risks to inmates but not liable for gang attack
BOISE, Idaho — A federal jury says private prison company CoreCivic had a longstanding custom of understaffing an Idaho prison, and that the company was deliberately indifferent to the risk of serious harm that posed to inmates.
But jurors also found that the company, formerly called Corrections Corporation of America, doesn’t have to pay damages for the problem because the inmates who sued failed to prove that the understaffing happened in the hours before they were attacked by a prison gang.
The jury deliberated for several hours before handing down the verdict late Thursday evening in a Boise courtroom. Afterward, attorneys on both sides of the case claimed a victory of sorts.
The inmates brought the lawsuit in 2012, contending that CCA deliberately understaffed the prison in order to boost profits, and that the understaffing created conditions that allowed a prison gang to hide in a janitorial closet for several hours before jumping out to beat and stab the inmates.
During closing arguments Thursday morning, the inmates’ attorney T.J. Angstman reminded the jurors that before the inmates were attacked CCA had already been in hot water several times for understaffing yet hadn’t fixed the problem. The state of Idaho had previously found the company in violation of its $29 million annual contract for understaffing, he noted, and in a separate lawsuit a federal judge found the company guilty of understaffing the prison. Later, CCA was found to be in contempt of court for violating a settlement agreement in the case that called for additional staffers at the prison.
Still, Angstman said, neither the state of Idaho, nor a federal judge, nor a contempt of court order was able to force CCA to staff its prison correctly. Only the company’s shareholders have that power, he said, and they’ll only make a change if understaffing starts to hurt their bottom line.
“Nobody else is left to make them stop,” Angstman said. “And you heard the CEO say he was proud of the work they did here in Idaho. You know why he was proud? Because he took those profits home to his shareholders.”
Last year the company made nearly $220 million in profit – more than $600,000 a day.
“Is a million dollars enough to punish CCA to deter this conduct? Or is that just the cost of doing business for them? You decide – A million dollars is less than two days of their profits last year,” Angstman said.
CCA’s attorney Dan Struck countered that the prison actually had more staffers working than were contractually required on the day before and the day of the attack. He said Angstman’s case was built on assumptions and red herrings.
“He dragged the CEO, Damon Hininger, across the country to testify about phone calls,” Struck said, referring to the inmates’ attorney. “And what did we learn? That they tried to stay within the budget. Well, who doesn’t?”
Struck suggested the inmates and their attorney could have filed a lawsuit alleging negligence and won. But instead, he contended, they tried to show that their constitutional rights were violated, a much harder case to prove. He told jurors Angstman was likely motivated by the idea of a big financial win.
“We know that the staffing was appropriate. We know that there are policies and procedures in place and officers are trained,” Struck told the jurors. “Those are the reasonable measures that are taken to protect them (the inmates).”
On the four-verdict form, the jury answered the first two questions in favor of the inmates, answering “yes” to questions that asked if CCA had violated inmates’ Eighth Amendments rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by being deliberately indifferent the serious risk posed by the company’s longstanding practice of understaffing the Idaho Correctional Center.
But they also found that the practice of understaffing didn’t deprive the inmates of their Eighth Amendment rights on May 4 and May 5, 2012 — the days surrounding the attack.
After the verdict was read, Struck said he appreciated the jury’s work on the case.
“The verdict is absolutely correct,” he said. “They didn’t prove causation, and the jury got it.”
Angstman, the inmates’ attorney, said he was still trying to understand the jury’s decision not award damages, but was pleased that they found the rights of his clients were violated.
Court turns down ex-CEO’s appeal in deadly coal mine disaster
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal appeals court has refused to rehear the case of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down the order Friday.
In January, a three-judge panel of the court found no error in trial rulings.
Those judges rejected his argument that jury instructions made it too easy to conclude that he willfully violated safety rules at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine before the 2010 explosion that killed 29 men.
He was convicted in 2015 of a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully violate safety standards.
The 66-year-old Blankenship is scheduled for release May 10 from a California federal prison where he’s serving a one-year sentence.