Benton County Father Successfully Challenges Unconstitutional Sentencing Conditions

State v. Miller (2017)

by David S. Marshall

Stephen Miller has successfully challenged several of his community custody conditions, proving the conditions were either unconstitutionally vague or violated his rights to marry and parent. The State conceded that the conditions were improper, and the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division Three, sent Mr. Miller’s case back to the Benton County Superior Court for resentencing.

Mr. Miller was convicted of third degree rape of a child and third degree child molestation because of a series of sexual encounters with a high school girl, a friend of his daughter. As part of his sentence, the trial court imposed several so-called “community custody” conditions. (Community custody—formerly “parole”—is a period during which a state official monitors a person found guilty of a felony in Washington State.) These conditions prohibited Mr. Miller from having contact with minor children, residing with minor children, or going “places where minor children are known to congregate unsupervised,” making an exception for Mr. Miller’s minor biological children and stepchildren. Another condition prohibited Mr. Miller from “possessing or perusing pornographic materials.”

Condition Prohibiting Mr. Miller from Places Minors Are “Known to Congregate”

Laws that are overly vague are unconstitutional. To preserve a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights, community custody conditions also must not be vague. This means conditions must

  • provide ordinary people with fair warning of the unlawful conduct
  • have standards that are definite enough to “protect against arbitrary enforcement” of the condition

The appeals court found that the condition prohibiting Mr. Miller from going places minor children are “known to congregate” failed the first part of the vagueness test. The condition as written did not give an ordinary person fair warning of unlawful conduct because it lacked clarifying language or an illustrative list of the locations Mr. Miller was prohibited from going. Therefore, the condition was unconstitutional, and the trial court would have to provide more clarification about the places Mr. Miller would be barred from during community custody.

Condition Prohibiting Mr. Miller from Possessing Pornographic Materials

Like the previous condition, the condition prohibiting Mr. Miller from possessing pornography failed the vagueness test because it too did not give fair warning of the unlawful conduct. Presumably, the court found that “possessing pornographic materials” was vague because no applicable Washington law defined “pornographic materials,” therefore making it difficult for Mr. Miller to know what items were prohibited.

Finding the pornography condition unconstitutional, the appeals court also sent this condition back to the trial court, suggesting the trial court tailor the condition by prohibiting Mr. Miller from possessing or perusing any depiction of “sexually explicit conduct” (as defined in RCW 9.68A.011(4). Using the term “sexually explicit conduct” is more precise than using the term “pornographic materials” because it is defined by Washington law in the appropriate context, and because Washington courts have previously upheld conditions prohibiting the use of materials depicting sexually explicit conduct.

Other Conditions Prohibiting Mr. Miller from Contact with Minors

Other community custody conditions assigned to Mr. Miller prohibited him from having contact with minors, residing where minors are residing, holding positions of authority over minors, and entering into relationships with women who have minor children. Mr. Miller, who has several biological children and is married to a woman with minor children, argued that these conditions interfere with his fundamental rights to marry and parent.

While courts are permitted by law to impose “crime related” community custody conditions, these conditions must pass a more careful review where they potentially interfere with fundamental rights (such as parenting). In Mr. Miller’s case, to avoid interfering with his fundamental right to the care and custody of his children, the trial court entered an order permitting him to have contact with his minor children and stepchildren.

However, the appeals court still found a lack of clarity in the combined effects of the conditions prohibiting Mr. Miller from positions of authority over children and from entering into relationships with women who have minor children. Accordingly, the appeals court sent the conditions back to the trial court to clarify the parameters of these two conditions as they interacted with the order allowing Mr. Miller to care for his children.