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Supreme Court splits on who decides how sex offenders can use the internet after prison

Kitsap Sun (Bremerton) logo Kitsap Sun (Bremerton) 6/10/2021 Andrew Binion, Kitsap Sun

In a split decision Thursday from a case where a Bremerton man was arrested as part of a child sex internet sting, the state Supreme Court upheld the power of probation officers, rather than judges, to decide how to limit the internet use of sex offenders.

The court’s 6-3 ruling upheld the conditions facing Christopher R. Johnson, 42, when he is released from prison. He was arrested in 2017 as part of a “net nanny” sting targeting adults who responded to online personal ads from detectives posing as children looking for sex. 

Johnson maintained he believed the person with whom he was communicating and tried to meet was actually an adult, not a 13-year-old girl the undercover detectives posting the Craigslist messages represented themselves as. A jury convicted Johnson of attempted second-degree rape of a child, attempted commercial sexual abuse of a minor and communication with a minor of immoral purposes. Judge Kevin Hull sentenced him to 10 years to life in prison. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling, which has the force of state law, focused on part of the restrictions Johnson and other sex offenders face upon their release from prison, that is, Hull’s order that Johnson not use the World Wide Web except “through approved filters” as decided by his community corrections officer, Washington state's version of probation officers.

At his sentencing hearing, Johnson’s attorney, Tim Kelly, noted that access to the internet is vital to navigating society, from selling a car to applying for a job. Access to the internet also has First Amendment implications, justices noted, as it allows a person to research and debate religion and politics and contact elected officials.

“Johnson committed his crimes using the Internet,” Chief Justice Steven C. González wrote for the majority, finding the restrictions neither overbroad nor vague in light of Johnson’s crimes. “A proper filter restricting his ability to use the Internet to solicit children or commercial sexual activity will reduce the chance he will recidivate and will also protect the public. While a blanket ban might well reduce his ability to improve himself, a properly chosen filter should not.” 

Dissenting justices noted that González emphasized the nature of Johnson’s crime and maintained Johnson should be kept from soliciting sex with children on the internet  — “No one can disagree,” Barbara Madsen wrote in her dissent.

a man looking at the camera: Christopher R. Johnson © contributed Christopher R. Johnson

However, dissenting justices wanted the case to be sent back to Kitsap County to have a judge determine what kind of internet restrictions Johnson would face, rather than giving that power to a community corrections officer.

“The First Amendment offers poor protection indeed if an individual’s rights depend on the goodwill of probation officers,” Madsen wrote.

Johnson is currently housed at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell. The earliest he can be released from prison is 2027, according to state Department of Corrections records.

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Supreme Court splits on who decides how sex offenders can use the internet after prison

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