Blog: Onerous limits on juvenile offenders’ Internet use is bad policy

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Comment? E-mail me

Juvenile courts should not impose overbroad restrictions on kids’ use of the Internet when their underlying offense is unrelated to online activity or expression. However, juveniles declared delinquent or wards of the state frequently have to deal with such onerous restrictions.

The California Court of Appeals addressed Internet-use restrictions on a juvenile in its March 9 opinion in In Re Victor L. In an incident undated in the opinion, the police found Victor, then 17, in the driver’s seat of a car in the middle of a street with alleged gang members. Victor admitted that he was a member of the San Mateo Sorenos street gang. A search of the car revealed a billy club and a pellet gun. Victor pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor weapons-possession charge. The court imposed a maximum sentence of one year’s confinement, but granted Victor probation.

The list of Victor’s probation restrictions included limits on his associations with other gang activities and a ban on acquiring future tattoos. In addition, the restrictions limited his Internet use, stating:

  1. “The Minor shall not access or participate in any Social Networking Site, including but not limited to”
  2. “The Minor shall not use, possess, or have access to a computer which is attached to a modem or telephone device.”
  3. “The Minor shall not be on the Internet without school or parental supervision.”

On appeal, Victor challenged numerous probation restrictions, including those concerning the Internet. The California Court of Appeals recognized that the second Internet restriction was too broad, as it would “literally prohibit Victor even from writing a term paper on the word processing program of a computer connected to a modem, regardless of whether he accessed the Internet or not.” The court also noted that the second restriction could bar Victor from legitimate uses of the computer, including educational or job-related purposes.

For these reasons, the Court modified the second restriction by striking the words “use” and “or have access to,” meaning that Victor could not own a computer with Internet access. However, the court left in place the ban on social-networking sites and the prohibition against logging onto the Internet without supervision.

The court never explained how Victor’s offense was tied to Internet use. Victor possessed a billy club and a pellet gun. How does a ban on Internet access teach the minor not to use or carry unauthorized weapons, or rehabilitate him?

The court did write that the restrictions “limit Victor’s access to the Internet in ways designed to minimize the temptation to contact his gang friends or to otherwise use the computer for illegal purposes by requiring adult supervision whenever he goes online.”

But such an approach is overly broad and could restrict positive activities by Victor online. It would be better for Victor to surf the Internet at home than cruise the street with gang members. Probation bans on Internet access make sense when the person has used the Internet to commit past crimes. For example, those who use social-networking sites to lure minors for untoward sexual purposes should have their online access limited. There is a clear danger that the person might use the Internet for illegal activity.

But to impose a blanket restriction on a minor’s use of the Internet — without tying it in any way to the underlying crime — is overbroad and not good policy.

Comment? E-mail me

Tags: , , ,