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United States of America v. Jason Sheppard
Case Number: 20-3088
Judge: Luis Felipe Restrepo
Court: UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
On appeal from The
Plaintiff's Attorney: Adam N. Hallowell
Laura S. Irwin
Office of United States Attorney
Philadelphia, PA - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with seven counts of mail fraud charges.
In October 2013, a grand jury indicted Jason Sheppard
on seven counts of mail fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341.
Sheppard pleaded guilty to one count, and judgment was entered against him in December 2016. The District Court dismissed the remaining six counts. Sheppard received a sentence
of 30-months imprisonment, with three years of supervised release, and was ordered to pay a special assessment in addition
to $ 11,749.06 in restitution.1
On August 26, 2019, he was released to serve his term of supervised release. Sheppard claims
that he has “complied with the conditions of supervised release
and has become a productive member of the public” since his
release from custody. J.A. 10. For example, he secured employment and is “in the process of developing his business ventures to start a new life.” J.A. 10.
According to Sheppard, in approximately March 2020,
he learned that his then girlfriend and his assigned probation
officer had developed a “personal relationship.” J.A. 10. This
purported “personal relationship” included the exchange of
dozens of text messages, largely centering around discussions
While Sheppard has since paid the special assessment, see
J.A. 50, it is unclear from the record whether Sheppard has paid
his restitution in full. Compare J.A. 12 (“Defendant . . . has
been working toward making restitution.”) with Appellant’s
Br. 5 (“Sheppard has paid restitution in full.”) (citing J.A. 50).
of the probation officer’s romantic life. For example, Sheppard’s probation officer allegedly texted Sheppard’s girlfriend:
• Questions soliciting the girlfriend’s perspective on his
former paramour’s behavior, see, e.g., J.A. 20 (“Why is
she posting everyday. Never does that”); J.A. 22 (“Last
one. How do you love someone a week ago then dump
them via text at age 52”); J.A. 29 (“Do you think there
is someone else?”); J.A. 29 (“Is she just ”);2
(“Why hasn’t she blocked me”); J.A. 35 (“What should
• His thoughts and feelings concerning his former paramour, see, e.g., J.A. 23 (“I miss her. Being able to call
or text.”); J.A. 43 (“It hurts to get dumped over a text”);
J.A. 43 (“Half of me is gone”);
• A photograph of his former paramour’s house, see, e.g.,
As relevant here, the “peanuts” emoji can be used to indicate
“crazy.” See Peanuts, Emojipedia.org, https://emojipedia.org/peanuts/ (last visited October 26, 2021); see also J.A.
29 (Sheppard’s girlfriend responding to the probation officer’s
use of the “peanuts” emoji with a text message reading, “Yes.
And you love the crazy lol”) (emphasis added).
• Screenshots of text messages concerning his former
paramour’s perspective on her relationship with the
probation officer, see, e.g., J.A. 33, 36;
• The status of his marriage, see, e.g., J.A. 23 (“Trying
[to streamline the divorce]. But there is another person
• Multiple requests for the girlfriend to talk on the telephone, see, e.g., J.A. 20 (“Call me when you get a minute.”); J.A. 35 (“Can [you] please call me”); J.A. 35
(“Can I call for 5 min”).3
Sheppard’s girlfriend purportedly responded in kind, engaging
Sheppard’s probation officer in texting conversations during
which she offered him advice on how to handle, and cope with,
his romantic problems. See, e.g., J.A. 24 (“If you just hang in
there and don’t poke the bear, she will text. She wants you to
chase her”); J.A. 27 (“Ok so I Facebook stocked [sic] her profile.”); J.A. 35 (“Call me tomorrow. Please get some rest
ok?!”); J.A. 38 (“Does she think if you get divorced that you
will turn around and marry her the next day”).
3 Sheppard asserts that his probation officer and then girlfriend
indeed spoke telephonically. According to Sheppard, these telephone calls were “substantial, with some lasting over an hour
long.” J.A. 10 (citing J.A. 45).
According to Sheppard, “[n]one of the text messages
[between his probation officer and his then girlfriend] involved
[him], his rehabilitation, or the detrimental effect the secret relationship would have on [his] rehabilitation.” J.A. 10.4
However, the probation officer purportedly suggested in at least one
text message exchange that his job required him to have a “tolerance for bullshit.” J.A. 41 (Girlfriend: “Everyone hates her
but you? . . . . That says a lot about your tolerance for bullshit
my friend[.]” Probation Officer: “Look what I do”).
On September 25, 2020, Sheppard filed a motion for
early termination of supervised release pursuant to 18 U.S.C.
§ 3583(e). Sheppard argued that his probation officer’s “personal relationship” with his girlfriend – which “caused the
break up of what [Sheppard] perceived to be a lifelong commitment” with his girlfriend – was negatively impacting his rehabilitation, thereby undermining any utility in continued supervision. J.A. 10-11. Sheppard also claimed that:
The probation officer was never
concerned with [his] rehabilitation and appears to use his position for his own personal
It is unclear from the record the extent to which the communications between Sheppard’s probation officer and then girlfriend occurred on a government phone, issued to the probation
officer by the United States Probation Office for official business. See J.A. 11, 47.
interests. Such conduct is a gross
violation of code of conduct for
probation and pretrial services officers found in Guide to Judiciary
Policy, Vol. 2A, Ch. 3, § F(2)(c) –
F(3), which prohibits a probation
officer from performing any official duties in which he or she has
a conflict or a personal bias or
prejudice concerning a party. The
probation officer embedded himself in a situation where he exercised authority over [his] rehabilitation and used that authority to
develop a personal relationship
with the former girlfriend. [His]
rehabilitation was threatened rather than facilitated by the probation officer, and he has lost his
trust in the United States Probation Office to assist in his rehabilitation.
J.A. 12. He also urged that the District Court grant him early
termination in “the interest of justice,” due to the fact that the
probation officer acted “counter to the purpose of supervised
release in rehabilitating [him]” and “jeopardized [his] supervised release by alienating [him] from a key relationship in his
rehabilitation efforts.” J.A. 13.
In support of Sheppard’s motion, his counsel submitted
a declaration that included three exhibits: 1) images of the alleged text messages between Sheppard’s girlfriend and his probation officer; 2) a call log “indicating that [the girlfriend]
spoke with [Sheppard’s] probation officer on the phone for 80
minutes on June 6, 2020”; and 3) an email that Sheppard’s
counsel sent to the probation officer’s supervisor, in which he
requested “copies of all communications (text messages,
emails etc[.])” between the probation officer and the girlfriend.
J.A. 17-18, 47. Counsel also requested that the District Court
grant Sheppard an evidentiary hearing, at which he intended to
call as a witness Sheppard’s therapist to “testify to how [Sheppard’s] rehabilitation and overall wellbeing has been burdened
by the probation officer’s conduct.” J.A. 18. Additionally,
Sheppard’s counsel noted that Sheppard had since been reassigned to a new probation officer.
Four days later, on September 29, 2020, the District
Court – without holding an evidentiary hearing, but “[h]aving
reviewed all of the facts, circumstances and arguments-presented” – denied Sheppard’s motion. J.A. 6. While recognizing that “[t]he purpose of supervised release is to assist [Sheppard] in transitioning to community life,” the District Court
concluded that Sheppard “offer[ed] no persuasive explanation
for why the purported misconduct of his former probation officer makes him less amenable to, or needful of, such assistance.” J.A. 5. Rather, the District Court found that Sheppard’s argument as to the effect of the probation officer’s misconduct on his rehabilitation “undermine[d]” his motion. See
J.A. 5 (“In fact, defense counsel’s only non-metaphysical argument actually undermines the request for early termination.
Compare Doc. 289 in 13-278 at 1 (indicating that Defendant’s
therapist would testify ‘as to how Defendant’s rehabilitation
has been burdened by his [former] probation officer’s conduct’) with Judgment in 13-278 (Doc. 239) at pg. 5 (recognizing Defendant’s need for mental health monitoring and treatment, having imposed it as a condition of supervised release).”). Sheppard timely appeals.
The District Court exercised jurisdiction under 18
U.S.C. § 3231. We have jurisdiction to review the District
Court’s denial of Sheppard’s motion for early termination of
supervised release pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.
We review a district court’s denial of a motion for early
termination of supervised release for abuse of discretion. See
United States v. Melvin, 978 F.3d 49, 52 (3d Cir. 2020) (citing
United States v. Smith, 445 F.3d 713, 716 (3d Cir. 2006)). “An
abuse of discretion ‘can occur if [a district court] fails to apply
the proper legal standard[.]’” Id. (quoting United States v.
Tomko, 562 F.3d 558, 565 (3d Cir. 2009) (en banc)). Underlying our review for abuse of discretion are the principles that:
1) a district court may have a “better vantage point than we on
the Court of Appeals to assess the matter,” Tomko, 562 F.3d at
565 (quoting United States v. Mitchell, 365 F.3d 215, 234 (3d
Cir. 2004)), and 2) “courts of appeals apply the abuse-of-
discretion standard to fact-bound issues that are ill-suited for
appellate rule-making,” id.
We must decide whether the District Court abused its
discretion in denying Sheppard’s motion for early termination
of supervised release. Based on the following analysis, we will
affirm the District Court’s ruling. However, in doing so, we
recognize the improper nature of the probation officer’s conduct and emphasize that the District Court should not have considered the possible effects of the probation officer’s misconduct on Sheppard’s rehabilitation in its denial of Sheppard’s
“[T]he primary purpose of supervised release is to facilitate the integration of offenders back into the community rather than to punish them.” United States v. Murray, 692 F.3d
273, 280 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting United States v. Albertson,
645 F.3d 191, 197 (3d Cir. 2011)); see also United States v.
Johnson, 529 U.S. 53, 59 (2000) (“Congress intended supervised release to assist individuals in their transition to community life.”). In doing so, supervised release serves as a means
of rehabilitation. Johnson, 529 U.S. at 59 (“Supervised release
fulfills rehabilitative ends, distinct from those served by incarceration.”); see also S. Rep. No. 98-225 (1983) (indicating that
the “primary goal” of supervised release includes “provid[ing]
rehabilitation to a defendant who has spent a fairly short period
in prison for punishment or other purposes but still needs supervision and training programs after release”); cf. United
States v. Carter, 730 F.3d 187, 196 n.3 (3d Cir. 2013) (McKee,
J., concurring) (“The reason that courts need to be concerned
with an offender’s successful reentry into society is clear; it is
beyond dispute that the vast majority of all offenders sentenced
to prison will one day be released back into the community.”).
Complementary to its statutorily granted authority to
sentence a defendant to a term of supervised release, a district
court may also cut short a defendant’s term of supervised release. See 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e). As relevant, § 3583(e) provides that:
The court may, after considering
the factors set forth in [18 U.S.C.
§§] 3553(a)(1), (a)(2)(B),
(a)(2)(C), (a)(2)(D), (a)(4), (a)(5),
(a)(6), and (a)(7)[,] terminate a
term of supervised release and discharge the defendant released at
any time after the expiration of one
year of supervised release, pursuant to the provisions of the Federal
Rules of Criminal Procedure relating to the modification of probation, if it is satisfied that such action is warranted by the conduct of
the defendant released and the interest of justice[.]
(emphasis added). The cited § 3553(a) factors include the following:
(1) the nature and circumstances of
the offense and the defendant’s
history and characteristics; (2) the
need to afford adequate deterrence
to criminal conduct, protect the
public from further crimes of the
defendant, and provide him with
needed educational or vocational
training, medical care, or other
correctional treatment in the most
effective manner; (3) the kinds of
sentence and sentencing range established for the defendant’s
crimes; (4) pertinent policy statements issued by the United States
Sentencing Commission; (5) the
need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants
with similar records who have
been found guilty of similar conduct; and (6) the need to provide
restitution to any victims of the offense.
Melvin, 978 F.3d at 52 (quoting United States v. Davies, 746
F. App’x 86, 88-89 (3d Cir. 2018)). A district court need not
make specific findings of fact for each factor. See id. at 52-53.
Rather, when denying a defendant’s motion for early termination of supervised release, as relevant here, “a statement that
[it] has considered the statutory factors is sufficient.” Id. (citing United States v. Gammarano, 321 F.3d 311, 315-16 (2d
Cir. 2003)). Additionally, Congress’s inclusion of the “expansive phrases ‘conduct of the defendant’ and ‘interest of justice’
[in § 3583(e)] make clear that a district court enjoys discretion
to consider a wide range of circumstances when determining
whether to grant early termination.” Id. at 52 (citing United
States v. Emmett, 749 F.3d 817, 819 (9th Cir. 2014)).
As an initial matter, we address Sheppard’s argument
that the District Court abused its discretion in failing to cite to
the relevant § 3553(a) factors in its order. Sheppard urges us
to hold that the District Court’s failure to include “any statement that it considered the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors as required by Melvin” amounts to an abuse of discretion. Appellant’s Br. 10 (citing Melvin, 978 F.3d at 51-52). In making this
argument, Sheppard seemingly reads Melvin to require a district court to include, by name – “§ 3553(a)” – in its order for
it to have considered the § 3553(a) factors. See id. at 8, 10.
This is a misreading of Melvin.
In Melvin, the Court held that it is “sufficient” for a district court to include a statement that it considered the
§ 3553(a) factors in its analysis – nowhere in Melvin do we
indicate that such a statement is, as Sheppard contends, “necessary,” or that such statement must mention § 3553(a) by
name. Compare Melvin, 978 F.3d at 52-53 (“District courts
are not required to make specific findings of fact with respect
to each of these factors; rather, ‘a statement that [the district
court] has considered the statutory factors is sufficient.’” (emphasis added) (citing Gammarano, 321 F.3d at 315-16 (noting
that a district court need not expressly reference “§ 3553(a)” to
acknowledge its consideration of the statutory factors))) with
Reply Br. 5 (“[A] statement that the court considered the statutory factors is sufficient and necessary to satisfy that requirement regardless of whether the court ultimately grants or denies the motion.” (emphasis added)). This is not to say that a
district court can deny a motion for early termination of supervised release without any indication in its order that it applied
the proper legal standard. It is simply that we leave it to the
district court to determine how it wants to convey that it considered the relevant § 3553(a) factors in making its determination. Melvin provides one option: for the district court to include a statement that it has considered the relevant § 3553(a)
factors. 978 F.3d at 53. But a district court has other options:
it may make specific findings of fact for each factor (although,
per Melvin, it is not necessary to do so), expressly indicate that
it considered the relevant factors under “§ 3553(a),” or otherwise make clear in some form that it applied the proper legal
See, e.g., Gammarano, 321 F.3d at 316 (holding that
The Government argues that, in denying a motion for early
termination of supervised release, a district court need not
a transcript of a district court’s hearing on a motion for early
termination “clear[ly]” indicated that it “properly considered
the factors relevant to this case before denying [the defendant’s] motion”).
Here, the District Court stated that it “reviewed all of
the facts, circumstances and arguments-presented” in reaching
its decision to deny Sheppard’s motion. J.A. 6. Given that
Sheppard’s motion addressed the legal standard under
§ 3583(e) and included arguments as to how the District Court
should analyze the relevant § 3553(a) factors, this statement
alone is “sufficient” under Melvin to indicate that it “considered the statutory factors.” Melvin, 978 F.3d at 53; J.A. 11-14.
To be sure, good practice likely dictates that a district court cite
the relevant statute by name in its order. But such an express
citation is not necessary, if the district court otherwise demonstrates that it applied the proper legal standard.
consider the relevant factors under § 3553(a) and instead may
exercise its discretion in considering whether “such action is
warranted by the conduct of the defendant released and the interest of justice.” Appellee’s Br. 11-12 (citing § 3583(e)(1)).
According to the Government, § 3583(e) “requires the court to
consider the § 3553(a) factors only before terminating release,
not before denying termination.” Id. Given the straightforward
application of Melvin to this case – along with the District
Court’s indication that it relied on the relevant § 3553(a) factors in reaching its decision – we need not address the Government’s argument here.
Next, we consider Sheppard’s primary argument: that
the District Court abused its discretion in denying his motion
for early termination of supervised release. Sheppard claims
that it was an abuse of discretion for the District Court to deny
his motion without considering “whether further supervision
would impair [his] rehabilitation.” Appellant’s Br. 11. Sheppard’s argument centers on the detrimental effect of his probation officer’s alleged “egregious conduct” on his rehabilitation.
Id. at 13. He suggests that, in the “interest of justice,”
the District Court should cut short his term of supervised release because the probation officer’s alleged misconduct has
caused him to “distrust” the probation office, hindered his ability to “transition into the community,” threatened his confidence in the court system, and otherwise left him “without a
remedy to right the wrong committed by the probation officer
or to deter future bad conduct from the probation office.” Appellant’s Br. 8, 11-13.
At the outset, we recognize that the District Court did
not fail to consider the effect of the probation officer’s alleged
misconduct. The District Court focused the majority of its
To the extent that Sheppard suggests that the District Court
abused its discretion in failing to consider how other circumstances, not related to the probation officer’s conduct, would
“impair” his rehabilitation, see, e.g., Appellant’s Br. 8, 13; J.A.
12, we agree with the Government that those arguments are
“undeveloped and unconvincing,” Appellee’s Br. 14 n.4.
decision on addressing Sheppard’s rehabilitation argument. It
found that Sheppard “offer[ed] no persuasive explanation for
why the purported misconduct of his former probation officer
makes him less amenable to, or needful of, such assistance.”
J.A. 5. Recognizing that the District Court is at a “better vantage point” to evaluate the extent to which the probation officer’s alleged misconduct impaired Sheppard’s rehabilitation,
and enjoys considerable discretion in determining whether the
“conduct of the defendant” and “interest of justice” warrant
early termination, we hold that it was within the District
Court’s discretion to conclude that “the one thing (the probation officer’s alleged misconduct) has little to do with the other
(whether [Sheppard] should continue under the supervision of
a different officer).” See J.A. 5; Tomko, 562 F.3d at 565; Melvin, 978 F.3d at 52. The District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying Sheppard’s motion for early termination of supervised release.
However, in reaching this holding, we highlight the
unique – and concerning – circumstances of this case, and recognize a faulty, yet not determinative, premise in the District
Court’s reasoning. If Sheppard’s allegations concerning the
behavior of his probation officer are true, the “personal relationship” that his probation officer formed with his then girlfriend is indeed, as Sheppard claims, “egregious” and “extraordinarily offensive.” Appellant’s Br. 12. Reviewing the alleged
text messages exchanged between Sheppard’s probation officer and his then girlfriend, these communications were intimate in nature; they conveyed personal information about the
probation officer’s romantic life, his former paramour’s feelings toward him, and his marital and extra-marital relationships. As Sheppard notes, these alleged communications did
not involve him, “his rehabilitation, or the detrimental effect
the secret relationship would have on [his] rehabilitation.” Appellant’s Br. 5-6.
A probation officer’s communications of such a “personal” nature with an assigned defendant’s significant other are
not only entirely inappropriate and unprofessional, but they
also undermine the primary objective of supervised release –
i.e., “to facilitate the integration of offenders back into the
community rather than to punish them.” Murray, 692 F.3d at
280 (quoting Albertson, 645 F.3d at 197). It also challenges
the role of probation officers as trusted government officials
who, in performing their duties, are “supposed to have in mind
the welfare of the probationer.” Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S.
868, 876 (1987); see United States v. Lifshitz, 369 F.3d 173,
180 (2d Cir. 2004). In Sheppard’s case, his probation officer
implicated Sheppard’s personal life in his own – and to such a
degree that, according to Sheppard, it caused him to break up
with his live-in girlfriend, with whom he considered to be in a
“lifelong commitment.” J.A. 11. If this is not the antithesis to
assisting Sheppard in transitioning back into the community,
and having his “welfare” in mind, we do not know what is.7
Additionally, we note that the probation officer’s alleged
suggestion to Sheppard’s girlfriend that his job requires a “tolerance for bullshit” is likewise entirely inappropriate and
The District Court indicated as much in its order, and it
acknowledged that the probation officer’s alleged conduct was
“unfortunate.” J.A. 5. Yet it found that Sheppard’s “only nonmetaphysical argument” – i.e., “how [Sheppard’s] rehabilitation has been burdened by his [former] probation officer’s conduct” – “actually undermines” his motion for early termination,
given his “need for mental health monitoring and treatment,
having imposed it as a condition of supervised release.” J.A.
5. We agree with Sheppard that the District Court’s reasoning
suggests that he may “require further mental health treatment,
even if [he] does not need it, because of the probation officer’s
offensive conduct.” Reply Br. 7-8. In other words, the District
Court’s order includes an inference that Sheppard is responsible not only for his own conduct, but also must shoulder any
and all negative repercussions from the misconduct of his probation officer. This inference is improper.
It cannot be clearer: when evaluating a motion for early
termination, a district court, particularly in the absence of holding an evidentiary hearing, may not impute a probation officer’s alleged improper actions to a defendant serving a term
of supervised release, so as to justify continued (or additional)
rehabilitative oversight. Any suggestion otherwise essentially
writes § 3583(e)’s mechanism for early termination of supervised release out of a defendant’s toolkit, and it would leave
unprofessional. J.A. 41. It not only conveys a disregard for
the welfare of Sheppard, but it also undermines the integrity of
the United States Probation Office’s administration of supervised release.
the strength of a defendant’s § 3583(e) motion dependent upon
the behavior and conduct of the assigned probation officer.
While we do not reach Sheppard’s arguments that his early termination of supervised release is essential to “right the wrong
committed by the probation officer” and “deter future bad conduct from the probation office,” Appellant’s Br. 8, we recognize that imputing a probation officer’s misconduct to a defendant places the defendant in a vulnerable position – not just
in terms of seeking relief for the probation officer’s misconduct, but also as to the defendant’s welfare and ability to integrate into the community.
To be sure, it was within the District Court’s discretion
to find that the probation officer’s alleged misconduct “ha[d]
little to do with” the merits of Sheppard’s motion and the underlying circumstances of his case. J.A. 5. And it may be so
that Sheppard will require additional rehabilitative oversight,
such as further mental health treatment, as a result of the probation officer’s alleged misconduct. However, the District
Court, in denying his motion, should not have considered the
possible effects of the probation officer’s misconduct on Sheppard’s rehabilitation.
Outcome: For these reasons, we will affirm the order of the District Court denying Sheppard’s motion for early termination of