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Appeals court tackles sex offender use of social media

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Two months after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the state’s law prohibiting sex offenders from using certain social media sites, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that Indiana Code 35-42-4-12 violates an Elkhart County man’s First Amendment rights.

In Michael L. Harris v. State of Indiana, 20A04-1204-CR-225, convicted sex offender Michael Harris appealed his convictions and sentence for Class D felony failure to register as a sex offender under I.C. 11-8-8-17 and Class A misdemeanor sex offender Internet offense under I.C. 35-42-4-12. Harris is required to register and report for life. After he was released from incarceration, he filled out an offender registration form, but left blank the spaces for “E-mail/Chat room/Instant Messaging/Social Networking Site Names.”

Police later discovered Harris had a MySpace profile and several email addresses. The AOL account used was registered under Harris’ wife’s name and paid for by her. The state then charged Harris with failure to register and a sex offender Internet offense. He claimed the charges should be dismissed based on ex post facto and free speech violations. He was convicted as charged.

The judges rejected Harris’ claim that I.C. 11-8-8-8(a)(7) chills his expression under the First Amendment. They pointed out that disclosure of online identifiers does not “unnecessarily interfere with his First Amendment freedom to speak anonymous,” citing Doe v. Shurtleff, 628 F.3d 1217 (10th Cir. 2010). They also found the state produced sufficient evidence to support Harris’ conviction of failure to register.
 
The COA acknowledged the recent 7th Circuit decision in John Doe v. Prosecutor, Marion County, Indiana, 12-2512, which held the law regulating social media use by sex offenders is unconstitutional, but pointed out the state court isn’t constrained by the federal court’s decision. Judges Patricia Riley and L. Mark Bailey noted that the parties in this case and remedy afforded differ from Doe, but still concluded that the state’s proffered narrow tailoring justifying the law is unsustainable in light of Doe. The law is unconstitutional as applied to Harris.

Judge Terry Crone concurred in result on this issue, writing, “I acknowledge that we are not bound by the Seventh Circuit’s holding and that Doe is both factually and procedurally distinguishable, but I see no reason to reinvent the wheel here and would reverse Harris’s conviction under Indiana Code Section 35-42-4-12 based on Judge Flaum’s persuasive analysis in that case.”

He concurred with the majority on all other matters.

 

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