On appeal from The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida ">

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Date: 11-21-2021

Case Style:

United States of America v. Peter Robert Bobal

Case Number: 19-10678

Judge: WILLIAM PRYOR

Court: IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
On appeal from The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Plaintiff's Attorney: United States Attorney’s Office

Defendant's Attorney:


Atlanta, GA - Best Criminal Defense Lawyer Directory


Description:

Atlanta, GA - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant charged with attempting to persuade a minor to engage in sexual activity and committing a felony involving a minor while required to register as a sex offender.



In October 2017, a 62-year-old woman living with her 18-year-old daughter
in Hallandale Beach, Florida, found a note on her door. The note said something
like “I think you’re beautiful,” although it was unclear whether the note was
addressed to the woman or her daughter. It included a phone number but no name.
The woman suspected that her neighbor, Peter Bobal, had left it. She asked her
friend, a 60-year-old man, to call the number. He did, and he reached Bobal’s
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voicemail. The friend hung up without leaving a message, but a short time later he
began receiving text messages from Bobal. Bobal wrote that he was a single male,
and he asked the caller to text him back. The friend did not respond.
After continuing to ignore Bobal for a couple months, the friend decided to
reply and to pose as a 14-year-old girl to see how Bobal would react. Bobal
responded by asking if the girl’s mother was single, and he said that he could talk
with either the girl or her mother about anything. He continued texting the
fictitious girl, and he eventually asked her to send him a picture. The man posing
as the girl offered the excuse that he was at school, but he asked Bobal for a
picture. Bobal responded by asking if he should send one of his face or of him
naked. The man never answered, so Bobal sent a picture of his face. But after the
man commented that Bobal had sent a picture of his face “instead of the other,”
Bobal sent the fictitious girl a picture of his penis. The man posing as the girl then
contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and turned over copies of his text
messages with Bobal.
A special agent of the Bureau assumed the identity of the fictitious 14-yearold girl. He exchanged numerous text messages with Bobal, many of which were
sexual in nature. Eventually, Bobal and the special agent arranged to meet. When
Bobal arrived at the agreed-upon meeting place, the special agent arrested him.
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A federal grand jury indicted Bobal on two counts: using a facility and
means of interstate commerce to knowingly attempt to persuade, induce, entice,
and coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity, 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b), and
committing a felony offense involving a minor after being required to register as a
sex offender, id. § 2260A. Bobal had previously been convicted in Florida for
using a computer to solicit a child to engage in sexual activity. At trial, Bobal
stipulated to the second element of the second count: at the time of the alleged
criminal misconduct, he was a registered sex offender.
The district court held a two-day, bifurcated jury trial. It did not inform the
jury about the charge under section 2260A until after the jury convicted Bobal of
the charge under section 2422(b). In the trial for the latter charge, neither the
government nor Bobal called any witnesses or offered any evidence other than
Bobal’s stipulation.
The prosecutor gave a short closing argument in which she explained the
two elements of section 2260A: first, the defendant committed a felony offense
involving a minor, and second, the defendant was required to register as a sex
offender at the time of the offense. She explained that Bobal’s stipulation about
being a registered sex offender satisfied the second element: “So the Defense is
telling you: ‘We stipulate that the Government proves Count 2. I was a registered
sex offender. I was required to register as a sex offender.’” And the prosecutor then
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asserted that the guilty verdict for section 2422(b) satisfied the first element of
section 2260A. She concluded, “So the only verdict as to Count 2 is a verdict of
guilty.”
Bobal did not object to the prosecutor’s statements, and he waived his own
closing argument. The jury then convicted him of violating section 2260A.
Later that day, after the trial ended, Bobal moved the district court for a new
trial on the second count. He argued that the prosecutor had misstated the law
when she said that “the only verdict as to Count 2 is a verdict of guilty” because
the jury was free to reevaluate the evidence as to the first count. The district court
denied the motion.
The district court sentenced Bobal to 240 months of imprisonment followed
by a lifetime term of supervised release. As a special condition of supervised
release, it ordered that Bobal “shall not possess or use a computer that contains an
internal, external or wireless modem without the prior approval of the Court.” And
it further ordered that Bobal “shall not possess or use any computer; except that
[he] may, with the prior approval of the Court, use a computer in connection with
authorized employment.” Bobal did not object to these special conditions.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
We review unpreserved issues for plain error. United States v. Moran, 573
F.3d 1132, 1137 (11th Cir. 2009); United States v. Pendergraft, 297 F.3d 1198,
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1211 (11th Cir. 2002). We may reverse only if the error is plain, it affects
substantial rights, and it “seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public
reputation of the judicial proceeding.” Pendergraft, 297 F.3d at 1211. An error
cannot be “plain” if “neither the Supreme Court nor this Court has ever resolved
[the] issue, and other circuits are split on it.” United States v. Aguillard, 217 F.3d
1319, 1321 (11th Cir. 2000).
III. DISCUSSION
Bobal argues that the district court erred by denying his motion for a new
trial and asks that we reverse his conviction for violating section 2260A. He also
contends that the computer restriction is unconstitutional in the light of
Packingham. Because Bobal did not contemporaneously object either to the
prosecutor’s closing argument or to his sentence, we review his arguments for
plain error, and we reject them both.
A. The District Court Correctly Denied Bobal’s Motion for a New Trial.
Bobal argues that the district court should have granted his motion for a new
trial for the charge under section 2260A because the prosecutor made two
misstatements during her closing argument. First, the prosecutor said that Bobal
stipulated to the second count instead of just one element of that count. Second,
she told the jury that “the only verdict as to Count 2 is a verdict of guilty” when the
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jury was actually free to reevaluate the evidence for the first count and to reach an
inconsistent verdict.
The prosecutor’s closing argument will constitute misconduct only if it was
improper and prejudiced the substantial rights of the defendant. United States v.
Taohim, 817 F.3d 1215, 1224 (11th Cir. 2013). We assess the prejudicial effect of
arguments by “evaluat[ing] them in the context of the trial as a whole and
assess[ing] their probable impact on the jury. To warrant a new trial, there must be
a reasonable probability that but for the remarks, the outcome would be different.”
Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). We conclude that the district
court did not err in denying Bobal’s motion for a new trial because the prosecutor’s
statements were not improper and did not prejudicially affect Bobal’s substantial
rights.
In explaining Bobal’s stipulation to the jury, the prosecutor, paraphrasing
Bobal, said, “We stipulate that the Government proves Count 2,” and on appeal,
the government concedes that this statement was an “isolated slip of the tongue.”
But, during the trial, the prosecutor immediately followed that “slip” with, “I was a
registered sex offender. I was required to register as a sex offender.” From the full
context of the quote, a reasonable juror would have understood the prosecutor to
contend that Bobal had stipulated to only one element of section 2260A—that he
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was required to register as a sex offender at the time of the offense—not the entire
count.
The prosecutor’s statement that “the only verdict as to Count 2 is a verdict of
guilty” was clearly an argument meant to persuade the jury, not an instruction as to
how it must vote. We allow lawyers to make “colorful and perhaps flamboyant
remarks if they relate to the evidence adduced at trial,” United States v. Bailey, 123
F.3d 1381, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted), and the
prosecutor’s remarks conveyed nothing more than elementary logic. Bobal’s
stipulation that he was a registered sex offender satisfied one of the two elements
of section 2260A. His conviction for violating section 2422(b)—delivered earlier
that day by the exact same jury—satisfied the other. Because Bobal satisfied both
elements, he was necessarily guilty of violating section 2260A. To be sure, the jury
could have rendered an inconsistent verdict. But “[w]hile we recognize that a jury
may render a verdict at odds with the evidence or the law, neither the court nor
counsel should encourage jurors to violate their oath.” United States v. Trujillo,
714 F.2d 102, 106 (11th Cir. 1983).
Neither of the prosecutor’s statements was improper. But even if they were
improper, “statements and arguments of counsel are not evidence, [and] improper
statements can be rectified by the district court’s instruction to the jury that only
the evidence in the case be considered.” United States v. Smith, 918 F.2d 1551,
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1562 (11th Cir. 1990). Here, the district court twice instructed the jury that the
lawyers’ statements were not evidence. So even if there were something wrong
with the prosecutor’s closing argument, the district court cured the problem, and
the prosecutor’s statements do not warrant a new trial. We affirm Bobal’s
conviction for violating section 2260A.
B. A Restriction on Computer Usage as a Special Condition of a Lifetime
Term of Supervised Release Is Not Plainly Unconstitutional.
Bobal next challenges the special condition of his supervised release that
prohibits him from using a computer except for work and with the prior permission
of the district court. He contends that this restriction is unconstitutional. But our
precedents foreclose his argument.
A district court does not commit plain error by imposing a computer
restriction as a special condition of supervised release, even if the term of
supervised release is life. We held in United States v. Zinn that a limited restriction
on a sex offender’s ability to use the internet while on a three-year period of
supervised release was “a necessary and reasonable condition of supervised
release” that did not burden the offender’s rights under the First Amendment. 321
F.3d 1084, 1086, 1093 (11th Cir. 2003). Such restrictions are reasonably related to
legitimate sentencing considerations, namely “the need to protect both the public
and sex offenders themselves from . . . potential abuses” of the internet. Id. at
1093. And computer restrictions are not overly broad when a sex offender on
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supervised release can “still use the Internet for valid purposes by obtaining his
probation officer’s prior permission.” Id. Later, in United States v. Carpenter, we
held that a district court did not plainly err by imposing a computer restriction as a
special condition of supervised release for a period of life. 803 F.3d 1224, 1239–40
(11th Cir. 2015).
Bobal contends that Carpenter does not help us to resolve this appeal, but
we disagree. To be sure, the issue we addressed in Carpenter was whether a
computer restriction as a special condition of a lifetime period of supervised
release was unreasonable, not whether it violated the First Amendment. Id. at
1228. We also reached our conclusion in Carpenter in part because, even if there
was any error in the length of the restriction, Carpenter invited it by asking the
district court to sentence him to a lifetime period of supervised release. Id. at 1239.
But we also stated that because “no case of the Supreme Court or this Court says
that a condition like this one cannot be imposed . . . there can be no plain error.” Id.
Bobal argues that the Supreme Court abrogated our precedents in
Packingham v. North Carolina, when it held that a North Carolina law prohibiting
registered sex offenders from accessing social networking websites that permitted
children to be present violated the First Amendment, 137 S. Ct. at 1733, 1738, but
Packingham is distinguishable for at least three reasons. First, the state law in
Packingham restricted sex offenders even after they had completed their sentences.
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Id. at 1737. Bobal’s computer restriction, by contrast, is a special condition of his
supervised release and does not extend beyond his sentence. Second, the state law
in Packingham applied to all registered sex offenders, not only those who had used
a computer or some other means of electronic communication to commit their
offenses. 137 S. Ct. at 1733. The Supreme Court explained that it was not holding
that the First Amendment bars the enactment of “more specific laws than the one at
issue.” Id. at 1737. Indeed, the Court “assumed that the First Amendment permits a
State to enact specific, narrowly tailored laws that prohibit a sex offender from
engaging in conduct that often presages a sexual crime, like contacting a minor or
using a website to gather information about a minor.” Id. Bobal used an electronic
device to attempt to persuade a minor with whom he had never communicated in
person to have sex with him. His computer restriction prevents him from engaging
in activity that could result in his repeating that offense. Third, unlike the state law
in Packingham, Bobal’s computer restriction is not a “complete bar to the exercise
of [his] First Amendment rights.” Id. at 1738. Instead, it allows Bobal to obtain
court permission to use a computer in connection with employment. And Bobal
can also ask the district court to modify the terms of his supervised release for
other reasons. See 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(2); Fed. R. Crim. P. 32.1(c). The computer
restriction does not leave Bobal without recourse to protect his First Amendment
rights.
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Bobal urges us to adopt a more sweeping interpretation of Packingham. He
cites a parenthetical sentence from the opinion, where the Supreme Court said, “Of
importance, the troubling fact that the law imposes severe restrictions on persons
who already have served their sentence and are no longer subject to the supervision
of the criminal justice system is also not an issue before the Court.” Packingham,
137 S. Ct. at 1737. Bobal understands this language to mean that the holding of
Packingham applies to all computer restrictions, regardless of whether the
defendant is on supervised release or has completed his sentence.
We disagree. The sentence in question clarified that the Supreme Court
decided only whether the North Carolina law violated the First Amendment, not
whether the law was unconstitutional for other reasons not raised in the appeal.
Nothing in Packingham undermines the settled principle that a district court may
“impose reasonable conditions that deprive the offender of some freedoms enjoyed
by law-abiding citizens” during supervised release. United States v. Knights, 534
U.S. 112, 119 (2001). Several of our sister circuits have likewise decided that, even
after Packingham, a district court does not commit plain error by imposing a
restriction on computer usage as a special condition of supervised release. See
United States v. Perrin, 926 F.3d 1044, 1049–50 (8th Cir. 2019); United States v.
Halverson, 897 F.3d 645, 658 (5th Cir. 2018); United States v. Rock, 863 F.3d 827,
831 (D.C. Cir. 2017).
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Bobal urges us to follow the Third Circuit, which reached the opposite
conclusion in United States v. Holena under an abuse-of-discretion standard. 906
F.3d 288, 290, 295 (3d Cir. 2018). The Third Circuit stated that, “[u]nder
Packingham, blanket internet restrictions will rarely be tailored enough to pass
constitutional muster.” Id. at 295. And it concluded that “even under Packingham’s
narrower concurrence,” a blanket computer restriction fails because it “precludes
access to a large number of websites that are most unlikely to facilitate the
commission of a sex crime against a child.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).
Holena read the opinions in Packingham too broadly. Both the majority
opinion and the concurring opinion in Packingham agreed that the North Carolina
law infringed the First Amendment rights of registered sex offenders, who would
be committing an entirely new felony if they accessed certain websites. But neither
opinion addressed whether the First Amendment is violated by a special condition
of supervised release for a sex offender who is serving a sentence for an offense
involving electronic communications sent to a minor.

Outcome: We AFFIRM Bobal’s conviction and sentence.

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