A sex offender is handed numerous “special conditions” as part of supervised release, in addition to the “standard” conditions that apply to every offense. This includes residency restrictions, mandatory sex offender counseling, and lots of other burdens that could land that person back in prison. For this reason, this case is an important one for sex offender sentencing purposes.
When the judge sentenced Christopher Singletary to 13 years in prison for a federal sex offense, he failed to mention in open court, with Singletary present, some special conditions that would apply during the supervised release term. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that this was error and that all non-mandatory supervised release conditions must be orally pronounced in open court, with the defendant present. United States v. Singletary, 984 F.3d 341 (4th Cir. 2021)
The Court reiterated its decision in United States v. Rogers, 961 F.3d 291 (4th Cir. 2020), where the court held that any sentence not pronounced orally in open court before the defendant was not truly “imposed.” That’s because a defendant has the right to be present at sentencing, and merely putting the conditions on the judgment without mentioning them in court violates that right.
The AUSA argued that, if remanded to the district court, those same conditions would simply be re-imposed by the court and orally pronounced with Singletary present, so the Fourth Circuit didn’t need to bother with such a meaningless task. But the court of appeals didn’t agree.
“The requirement that a district court orally pronounce all non-mandatory conditions of supervised release is not a meaningless formality, but a critical part of the defendant’s right to be present at sentencing,” the Court said. “If a condition is imposed in open court and in the defendant’s presence, then the defendant will have the opportunity to object …. And that opportunity is critical, because it allows defendants to explain why particular discretionary conditions — which may not be imposed unless an individualized assessment indicates that they are justified in light of the statutory factors — are not sufficiently tailored to their individual circumstances.”
With Singletary present in the courtroom and able to object to the conditions, if he chose to do so, the district court may decide that the conditions don’t apply to him. The Court remanded for resentencing.
Unsurprisingly, this decision prompted numerous resentencings in the Fourth Circuit. This is because courts have routinely imposed special conditions of supervised release without so much as a word in open court with the defendant present. Before the Fourth spoke on this problem, it was rarely raised since most people believed exactly what the government here argued: What`s the use if the district court would simply reimpose the same conditions orally in court on remand? Well, that faulty thinking has been addressed.
Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. He is a consultant in federal post-conviction procedure and an authority on federal sex offense issues.