The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Foster, holding that a criminal defendant may not be found in violation of probation without a proper finding by the trial court that the defendant violated a specific condition of probation. In this case, the violation of probation was based solely on the defendant’s decision to post photos of guns, drugs, and money on social media. Because the Commonwealth did not introduce any evidence that the defendant was actually in possession of the contraband or that the terms of probation specifically prohibited from posting these types of things on social media, the Supreme Court held that the defendant should not have been found to have violated his probation.
The Facts of Foster
In Foster, the defendant pleaded guilty to Possession with the Intent to Deliver of a controlled substance. He received a sentence of four years’ probation. Shortly after he started his probation, he posted photos on his social media accounts which depicted guns, drugs, and large amounts of money. The photos also included his sentencing sheet from the PWID case. The defendant’s probation officer detained him, and the trial court held a hearing on whether the defendant had violated his probation despite the fact that he had not been convicted of any new crimes and had been reporting, testing negative for drugs, and seeking employment as required.
The trial court found the defendant in violation of his probation and sentenced him to 11.5 – 23 months’ incarceration followed by a new period of probation. At the hearing, the Commonwealth essentially produced only the photographs that the defendant had posted on social media. The photographs did not show the defendant actually in possession of the drugs, money, or guns. The Commonwealth argued that he was using his social media account “as an ad agency to sell drugs” and that he was continuing to engage in illegal activity. The prosecutor further argued that the photos showed that he had no respect for the court or for probation and that he should be sentenced to a period of incarceration.
The defendant responded by admitting that the accounts in question were his, but he asserted that he had merely downloaded the photographs from the internet and re-posted them in order to show off for friends. He denied that he had ever been in possession of any contraband since starting his probation. The Commonwealth did not introduce any evidence to rebut the defendant’s position. Essentially, the defense argued that the defendant should have been smarter in terms of what he posted on the internet, but he had not violated the terms of his probation merely by showing off for friends on social media because nothing in the law governing probation or the actual terms of his probation which were provided by the probation department prohibited him from posting on social media.
The Trial Court’s Ruling
The trial court accepted the Commonwealth’s position, revoked probation, and sentenced the defendant to jail. The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which affirmed the order revoking his probation, and the defendant filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to accept the case.
Is it a violation of probation to post photos of drugs and guns on social media?
Probably not. On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the trial court had erred in finding the defendant in violation of his probation because there was no evidence that he had committed a new crime, violated a specific term of his probation, or actually been in possession of contraband. The Commonwealth’s bare assertions that it must have been the defendant holding the contraband in the photographs were not sufficient to prove that he had not in fact downloaded the photos from the internet and simply re-shared them.
The Supreme Court noted that when a trial court places a defendant on probation, the court must specify the length of the term of the probation at the time of sentencing. The court must also identify which conditions of probation the defendant must follow. The law provides a number of potential conditions from which a court may choose. For example, a court may properly require a defendant:
1) To meet his family responsibilities.
2) To devote himself to a specific occupation or employment.
3) To participate in a public or nonprofit community service program unless the defendant was convicted of murder, rape, aggravated assault, arson, theft by extortion, terroristic threats, robbery or kidnapping.
4) To undergo available medical or psychiatric treatment and to enter and remain in a specified institution, when required for that purpose.
5) To pursue a prescribed secular course of study or vocational training.
6) To attend or reside in a facility established for the instruction, recreation, or residence of persons on probation.
7) To refrain from frequenting unlawful or disreputable places or consorting with disreputable persons.
8) To have in his possession no firearm or dangerous weapon unless granted written permission.
9) To make restitution of the fruits for his crime or to make reparations, in an amount he can afford to pay, for the loss or damage caused thereby.
10) To remain within the jurisdiction of the court and to notify the court or the probation officer of any change in his address or his employment.
11) To report as directed to the court or the probation officer and to permit the probation officer to visit his home.
12) To pay such fine as has been imposed.
13) To participate in drug or alcohol treatment programs.
14) To satisfy any other conditions reasonably related to the rehabilitation of the defendant and not unduly restrictive of his liberty or incompatible with his freedom of conscience.
15) To remain within the premises of his residence during the hours designated by the court.
Further, the statute provides when a court may find a defendant in revocation. It provides:
“The court may revoke an order of probation upon proof of the violation of specified conditions of the probation. Upon revocation the sentencing alternatives available to the court shall be the same as were available at the time of initial sentencing, due consideration being given to the time spent serving the order of probation.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Ruling
Here, the Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the defense on appeal that the defendant had not violated a specific term of probation. Nothing in the statute or the orders which the probation department had actually given him dictated that he could not post photos of drugs and guns on the internet. Therefore, the Court reversed the order finding the defendant in violation of his probation, vacated the jail sentence, and remanded the case back to the trial court.
It is important to note that in this case, the Commonwealth could not actually prove that the defendant possessed the guns, drugs, or cash, and the rules did not specifically prohibit him from posting these types of photos. If the Commonwealth had been able to show that he did have those things in his possession, then the Commonwealth may have been successful in proving a probation violation even if it did not proceed against the defendant on new charges. Likewise, it may be possible for probation to prohibit a defendant from engaging in this type of behavior in the future, although such rules could raise free speech concerns. Therefore, it is extremely important for a probationer to closely review the rules of probation or parole at the beginning of the supervision period and to seek experienced criminal defense counsel in the event of a potential violation.
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