News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit holds supervised release Standard Condition 12 is improper delegation of authority to probation – United States v. Cabral

Standard Condition 12 requires people on supervised release to notify third parties about the “risks” they pose, at the discretion of their probation officer. See U.S.S.G. § 5D1.3(c)(12). Last year, in United States v Hull, 893 F.3d 1221 (10th Cir. 2018), the Tenth Circuit upheld this condition against vagueness and improper delegation challenges in a case where the judge specified that the relevant “risks” were those related to the defendant’s prior convictions for bank robbery and home invasion.

Recently, in United States v Cabral, —F.3d—, 2019 WL 2416950 (10th Cir. 2019), the Tenth Circuit vacated Standard Condition 12 in a case where the judge refused to limit its scope in any way. The Tenth Circuit punted on Mr. Cabral’s vagueness challenge, which it found prudentially unripe, but found that the unbounded condition was an improper delegation of authority to the probation officer.

The law here is well settled. Article III gives only judges the authority to impose punishment, and the judiciary may not delegate that authority to a non-judicial probation officer. Mr. Cabral argued on appeal that the risk-notification condition improperly delegates to probation the power to define the term “risk”—and thus “to determine what conduct the condition proscribes, and when it will be enforced”—without meaningful guidance from the district court. The circuit agreed: “By tasking Mr. Cabral’s probation officer with determining whether Mr. Cabral poses a “risk” to others in any facet of his life and requiring Mr. Cabral to comply with any order to notify someone of any such risk, the district court delegated broad decision-making authority to the probation officer that could implicate a variety of liberty interests.” 2019 WL 2416950, at *7.

Notably, the law on interpreting these open-ended supervised release conditions is usually pretty bad for us on appeal, because the Tenth Circuit interprets conditions “such that they comply with the law.” But as you’ll see in the opinion, it was impossible to apply this general rule here, because of what the district court said at sentencing. (For example, “I don’t care if I can’t say what the risk is now.”) As Judge McHugh wrote: “the district court here emphatically opened the door to boundless scenarios implicating various liberty interests,” from the right to familial association to the right to engage in a lawful occupation. 2019 WL 2416950, at *7-8.

Also noteworthy is Judge McHugh’s apparent sensitivity to the hardship indigent clients face in pursuing modification of supervised release, because there is no right to appointed counsel at those proceedings: “the prospect that Mr. Cabral would otherwise have to retain private counsel or proceed pro se to challenge the condition further supports our immediate review of his challenge, with the benefit (to him and to us) of counsel’s briefing.”

Takeaways

  • Seek clarification of Standard Condition 12. After Cabral, it’s clear that Standard Condition 12 requires some kind of limitation—it can’t be read to allow probation officers to require disclosure of literally any risk. So ask the sentencing court to be clear about what risks your client will be required to disclose, or else propose a limit of your own. It may, for instance, make sense to tie the relevant risks directly to your client’s specific criminal history, as Judge Brimmer did in Hull.
  • Watch out for improper delegations to the probation office. This opinion serves as a good reminder that probation officers are not judges, and their discretion should be limited to deciding “ministerial” questions—like what time to show up for an appointment—and not foundational ones—like what conduct is subject to a condition at all.
  • Keep an eye on standard conditions. Generally speaking, the Tenth Circuit is quite deferential when it comes to the standard conditions of supervised release set out in the Sentencing Guidelines. But as Cabral demonstrates, there are limits to that deference, and you shouldn’t assume that an otherwise overbroad, over-delegating condition is OK just because it’s a standard one.
  • Try to resolve questions about conditions of supervised release at sentencing. It may be tempting to put off resolving questions about the scope of your client’s conditions of supervised release until, well, he is actually on supervised release. But as Cabral reminds us, that strategy may put your client in a tough spot: After all, there’s no right to counsel to pursue modifications of supervised release. So if your client is facing a problematic condition of supervised release, see if you can take care of it at sentencing.

Author: COFPD

Federal Public Defender's Office for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming