Atlanta, Georgia - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with a being a felon in possession of a firearm charge.
James Taylor appeals the imposition of an electronic search condition on his
conditions of supervised release and the substantive reasonableness of his aboveguideline 30-month sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Taylor
argues that the District Court below erred in two ways. First, Taylor claims that
the District Court erred by imposing an electronic search condition on his
supervised release conditions as a measure to deter him from future offenses.
Then, Taylor argues that the District Court substantively erred by placing too much
emphasis on his criminal history in imposing an above-guideline sentence. We
disagree on both points and, accordingly, affirm.
At 2:49 AM on February 23, 2019, officers from the Dalton Police
Department were dispatched to check on the welfare of a non-responsive subject—
a man later identified as James Taylor. Dispatch advised the officers that Taylor—
seated in a truck in the middle of a road—did not respond to a motorist, who had
honked his horn at Taylor’s grey Chevrolet Avalanche but ultimately had to drive
around the stopped truck.
When the first officer arrived at the scene, he observed a grey truck sitting in
the middle of the road. The officer walked around to the passenger’s side of the
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truck and knocked on the window to get Taylor’s attention. Taylor did not respond
to the knock, but the officer could see Taylor’s chest moving up and down, so he
assumed that Taylor was alive. The officer then approached the driver’s side of the
truck and knocked on the window. Again, Taylor did not respond, so the officer
opened the driver’s side door and identified himself as a police officer.
This was apparently enough to rouse Taylor. As the police officer opened
the driver’s side door to the truck, Taylor awoke, appeared startled, and asked the
officer what he was doing. The officer asked Taylor if he was okay; Taylor stated
that he was but that he was confused as to why the police officer was standing
beside his truck. At this point, the officer noticed that Taylor was slurring his
speech and seemed nervous, but the officer did not smell any alcohol, nor did he
see any indication that Taylor was intoxicated. So, the officer explained to Taylor
that he was parked in the middle of the road and that another driver had honked,
waiting for him to move.
When the officer ran a record check, he learned that Taylor had an active
warrant from Walker County, Georgia, and that Taylor did not have a driver’s
license. The officer advised Taylor that he was under arrest for Driving While
Unlicensed. When the officer began to handcuff Taylor, Taylor stated that he had
a knife in his right-side front pocket. As the officer retrieved the knife from
Taylor’s pocket, a second officer—who recently arrived on the scene—observed
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that Taylor also had a firearm in his waistband. The firearm, a 9mm pistol, was
then run through dispatch, but it came back without a record. An officer also ran a
criminal history check on Taylor and found that he was convicted felon. As a
result, Taylor was not permitted to possess a firearm, and the officers transported
him to the Whitfield County Jail.
On August 28, 2019, a grand jury indicted Taylor for being a felon in
possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Taylor pled guilty
without a plea agreement on November 4, 2019. In Taylor’s PSI, the probation
officer calculated that Taylor’s base offense level was 14 under U.S.S.G.
§ 2K2.1(a)(6)(A), but the officer applied a two-level reduction for acceptance of
responsibility under § 3E1.1(a). The probation officer ultimately determined that,
based on an offense level of 12 and a criminal history category of IV, Taylor’s
guideline range was 21 to 27 months.
Taylor filed a sentencing memorandum in which he stated that he struggled
with sobriety and that his poor judgment was directly tied to his substance abuse.
He noted, however, that he had been sober since his February 2019 arrest and that
he was in enrolled in a theology correspondence course, as he hoped to join a
ministry upon his release from prison.
The government also submitted a sentencing memorandum and argued that
Taylor’s criminal history weighed heavily in favor of a 42-month sentence. In
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support, the government noted that Taylor habitually possessed guns when he was
not permitted to and that Taylor’s previous stints in custody had not deterred him
from having a gun, despite his convicted felon status. The 42-month sentence,
then, was necessary to deter Taylor from future prohibited conduct.
In response to the government’s memorandum, Taylor acknowledged that he
had been convicted for possessing a firearm six times in the last decade. Taylor
likewise conceded that the District Court previously warned him that he would be
facing substantially more time for this offense than he did for past offenses. But,
in response to the government’s proposed above-guidelines sentence, Taylor
argued that he had received only probation for his prior offenses, so a withinguidelines sentence of imprisonment would already be substantially more than he
previously received. Taylor additionally pointed out that, during the past decade,
he had no convictions, and his firearm possession in this case was not in
furtherance of committing other felony offenses but was in connection with the use
of drugs or alcohol. As a result, Taylor argued that drug treatment would serve as
a deterrent, and a within-guidelines sentence—when compared to his prior
sentences—would be sufficient to achieve respect for the law.
At sentencing, the government maintained that a sentence of 42 months’
imprisonment would be reasonable and sufficient to achieve the goals detailed in
18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). It argued that Taylor had shown disregard for the law, that a
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significant custodial sentence would send a strong message, and that such a
sentence would hopefully deter him in the future. And the government noted that,
in any event, a 42-month sentence was far below the maximum allowed by statute.
In response, Taylor argued that the best deterrent for future offenses would be a
drug treatment program in prison. And he reiterated that a within-guidelines
sentence would be significantly more time than he received in the past. Indeed,
Taylor had already spent one year in county jail, which was more time than he had
served for any previous offense.
The District Court declined to impose the 42-month sentence the
government suggested and instead sentenced Taylor to 30 months’ imprisonment
and three years of supervised release. The District Court stated that it intentionally
chose a sentence three months beyond the upper end of the guideline range to send
a message to Taylor about the seriousness of the offense and to promote respect for
the requirement that Taylor cannot carry a weapon. And for the supervised release,
the District Court ordered Taylor to submit his personal property, residence, car,
documents, computers, digital and data storage devices, and office to search by the
probation officer. The search condition required that any search pursuant to this
condition was authorized “only when reasonable suspicion exists that [Taylor]
violated a condition of [his] supervision and that areas to be searched contain
evidence of this violation.”
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Taylor objected to the upward variance as substantively unreasonable and to
the search condition regarding computers and electronic equipment as overbroad.
Noting Taylor’s objection to the search condition, the District Court explained that
since Taylor had a drug history, the electronic search condition was reasonable
because evidence of drug activity could be reflected on his digital devices.
Likewise, the District Court stated that it was reasonable to assume that, given
Taylor’s history, his devices might reflect a purchase or attempt to purchase a
weapon “through Craigslist or otherwise.”
Taylor timely appealed and argues (1) that the electronic search condition
was unrelated to the goals of deterrence, public protection, or rehabilitation and (2)
that his above-guidelines 30-month sentence is substantively unreasonable. We
disagree on both counts and, accordingly, affirm the imposition of the electronic
search condition and the 30-month sentence.
We review the imposition of special conditions of supervised release for
abuse of discretion. United States v. Moran, 573 F.3d 1132, 1137 (11th Cir. 2009).
We likewise review the reasonableness of a sentence under the deferential abuseof-discretion standard. Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 41, 128 S. Ct. 586, 591
(2007). The party challenging a sentence bears the burden of demonstrating that
the sentence is unreasonable in light of the record, the factors listed in 18 U.S.C.
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§ 3553(a), and the substantial deference afforded sentencing courts. United
States v. Rosales-Bruno, 789 F.3d 1249, 1256 (11th Cir. 2015).
Let’s start with Taylor’s electronic search condition.
As a general matter, a district court may order special conditions that: (1) are
reasonably related to the nature and circumstances of the offense, history and
characteristics of the defendant, and the needs for adequate deterrence, to protect
the public, and to provide the defendant with needed training, medical care, or
correctional treatment in an effective manner; (2) involve no greater deprivation of
liberty than is reasonably necessary; and (3) are consistent with any pertinent
policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission. 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d)(1)–
(3); see also U.S.S.G. § 5D1.3(b). When imposing special conditions, a district
court must consider what conditions best accomplish the purposes of sentencing.
Moran, 573 F.3d at 1139.
Further, supervised release conditions that are undeniably related to 18
U.S.C. § 3553(a) sentencing factors are not vague and overbroad, United States v.
Nash, 438 F.3d 1302, 1307 (11th Cir. 2006), though a special condition does not
need to be supported by each of the § 3553(a) factors. United States v. Zinn, 321
F.3d 1084, 1089 (11th Cir. 2003). Nor does a special condition of supervised
release need to relate to the particular offense of conviction. United States v. Bull,
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214 F.3d 1275, 1277 (11th Cir. 2000). And although a condition of supervised
release should not unduly restrict a defendant’s liberty, a condition is not invalid
simply because it limits the defendant’s ability to exercise constitutionally
protected rights. United States v. Tome, 611 F.3d 1371, 1376 (11th Cir. 2010).
This makes sense: the goals of reducing recidivism and promoting rehabilitation
warrant privacy intrusions that would not otherwise be allowed under the Fourth
Amendment. Castillo v. United States, 816 F.3d 1300, 1305 (11th Cir. 2016).
At this point, we should note that electronic search conditions are typically
reserved for sex offenders. But, as a matter of first impression in this Circuit, we
hold that electronic search conditions may also be imposed on those who are not
normal non-sex offenders, such as those who frequently recidivate, or habitually
violate their conditions of supervised release, in a manner that poses a danger to
others. This is consistent with the Sentencing Guidelines, which recognize that a
special condition of supervised release requiring the defendant to submit to a
search at any time of his person and property, including electronic devices, where
law enforcement or the probation officer have reasonable suspicion of a violation
of supervised release or unlawful conduct, is recommended in sex-offender cases
and “may otherwise be appropriate in particular cases.” U.S.S.G. § 5D1.3(d),
(d)(7) (emphasis added).
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With these principles in mind, it is clear that Taylor has failed to show that
the District Court abused its discretion by imposing the electronic search condition
as a special condition of his supervised release. Although the electronic search
condition did not relate directly to Taylor’s firearm offense, it was reasonably
related to Taylor’s history as a recidivist and the statutory goals of deterring him
from future potentially dangerous offenses. 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d)(1)–(3); Moran,
573 F.3d at 1139–41 (upholding a release condition unrelated to the defendant’s
instant offense, but where the condition specifically related to the defendant’s prior
Further, Taylor was not a “normal non-sex offender.” Indeed, Taylor has
conceded that he was a chronic lawbreaker. The District Court recognized this fact
and repeatedly noted its concern that Taylor would continue to purchase and
possess both drugs and guns. From there, it was entirely reasonable for the District
Court to conclude that Taylor may purchase those drugs and guns over the internet.
A mere search of a physical space—as the District Court pointed out—would be
far less likely to reveal such violations. So, even though Taylor was not a sex
offender, it was not an abuse of discretion for the District Court to impose an
electronic search condition here.
Lastly, Taylor argues that the electronic search condition was vague and
overbroad because it allowed “unfettered access to content across any number of
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devices” and because the phrase “areas to be searched” was ambiguous. But we
can dispose of these arguments quickly. First, the electronic search condition was
not overbroad because it allowed access only at a reasonable time, when there was
reasonable suspicion of a violation, and where the specific area to be searched
contained evidence of that violation. And second, the phrase “areas to be
searched” was not vague because the specific areas to be searched were
enumerated in the search condition, and the commonsense meaning of the
phrase—especially as it referred back to a list of enumerated areas—was plain. In
fact, the search condition here was clear that it authorized a search of only the area
thought to contain the violation.
Accordingly, the District Court did not abuse its discretion by imposing the
electronic search condition on Taylor’s conditions of supervised release, and thus
we affirm its imposition.
Now, to the substantive reasonableness of Taylor’s sentence.
A district court must impose a sentence that is “sufficient, but not greater
than necessary, to comply with the purposes” listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2),
which include reflecting the seriousness of the offense, promoting respect for the
law, providing just punishment, affording adequate deterrence, protecting the
public from the defendant’s further crimes, and providing the defendant with
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appropriate correctional treatment. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). A district court must also
take into consideration the “nature and circumstances” of the offense and the
“history and characteristics” of the defendant. Id. § 3553(a)(1). In addition, the
statute directs the district court to consider the types of sentences available, the
applicable guideline range, any pertinent policy statement issued by the Sentencing
Commission, the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities, and the need to
provide restitution to victims. Id. § 3553(a)(3)–(7).
The weight accorded to any one § 3553(a) factor is a matter “committed to
the sound discretion of the district court,” and a court may attach “great weight” to
one factor over others. Rosales-Bruno, 789 F.3d at 1254 (quotation marks
omitted). However, a district court’s unjustified reliance on a single § 3553(a)
factor may be a “symptom” of unreasonableness. United States v. Pugh, 515 F.3d
1179, 1191 (11th Cir. 2008). The district court is not required to explicitly address
each of the § 3553(a) factors or all of the mitigating evidence. United States v.
Amedeo, 487 F.3d 823, 833 (11th Cir. 2007). Rather, “[a]n acknowledgment [that]
the district court has considered the defendant’s arguments and the § 3553(a)
factors will suffice.” United States v. Gonzalez, 550 F.3d 1319, 1324 (11th Cir.
A district court “imposes a substantively unreasonable sentence only when it
(1) fails to afford consideration to relevant factors that were due significant weight,
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(2) gives significant weight to an improper or irrelevant factor, or (3) commits a
clear error of judgment in considering the proper factors.” Rosales-Bruno, 789
F.3d at 1256 (quotation marks omitted). We may vacate the sentence only if we
“are left with the definite and firm conviction that the district court committed a
clear error of judgment in weighing the § 3553(a) factors” by imposing a sentence
that falls outside the range of reasonableness as dictated by the facts of the case.
United States v. Irey, 612 F.3d 1160, 1190 (11th Cir. 2010) (en banc) (quotation
In reviewing the substantive reasonableness of a sentence imposed outside
the guideline range, we may take the degree of variance into account and consider
the extent of a deviation from the guidelines. Gall, 552 U.S. at 47, 128 S. Ct. at
594–95. Although there is no proportionality principle in sentencing, a major
variance from the advisory guideline range requires a more significant justification
than a minor one, and the justification must be sufficiently compelling to support
the degree of the variance. Irey, 612 F.3d at 1196. The district court may vary
upward based on conduct that was already considered in calculating the guideline
range. United States v. Williams, 526 F.3d 1312, 1324 (11th Cir. 2008). Finally, a
sentence imposed well below the statutory maximum penalty is an indicator of a
reasonable sentence. Gonzalez, 550 F.3d at 1324.
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Here, the District Court did not substantively err in varying upward by three
months. In weighing the § 3553(a) factors to formulate a sentence, the District
Court declined to impose the government’s requested 42-month sentence but
instead found that a sentence of 30 months was sufficient and not greater than
necessary to meet the goals of the § 3553(a) factors. The District Court quite
reasonably placed heavy emphasis on a few of the § 3553(a) factors: the nature and
circumstances of the offense in light of Taylor’s prior criminal history, promoting
respect for the law, and deterring Taylor from continued violations of the
prohibition against him possessing a gun. We find the District Court’s deterrence
rationale particularly compelling. This was Taylor’s seventh conviction for
illegally possessing a gun, and Taylor received little to no jail time for his previous
offenses. It was hardly an abuse of discretion, then, for the District Court to
conclude that Taylor had not been deterred from violating the law by his prior
And the sentence Taylor received—30 months’ imprisonment—was
significantly less that the statutory maximum sentence—10 years’ imprisonment.
Again, this is an indicator of the sentence’s reasonableness. Gonzalez, 550 F.3d at
1324. So, given the District Court’s consideration of the § 3553(a) factors, and
given that Taylor’s sentence falls well below the statutory maximum, we hold that
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the District Court’s imposition of a 30-month sentence was not an abuse of
Outcome: Because the District Court did not abuse its discretion in imposing on Taylor
(1) an electronic search condition on his conditions of supervised release and (2) a
sentence of 30 months’ imprisonment, we affirm.