By Rob Abruzzese
Just four months after he issued an opinion stating that supervised release was too punitive for marijuana users, Judge Jack B. Weinstein continued his push to change the conditions.
Judge Weinstein, who sits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, issued a 16-page opinion earlier this month stating that he would no longer suspend a person's supervised release if they appear reintegrated into society but drink alcohol socially, so long as alcohol played no part in the underlying offense.
“The court will not find violations of supervised release and punishment by incarceration merely for habitual, socially acceptable use of alcohol except in unusual cases,” Judge Weinstein wrote. “When a supervisee appears to be reintegrated into society but uses alcohol socially, the supervisee shows no interest in stopping alcohol use and alcohol played no part in the underlying offense, the court will consider terminating supervision, releasing defendant as unimproved with respect to this habit.”
The judge pointed out that the purpose of federal supervised release is to assist former convicts in rehabilitation including their reintegration into society. He conceded that violations sometimes require incarceration but added that the main goal is reintegration into the community.
“Using Probation’s limited resources on a supervisee whose only violation is that he imbibes and enjoys alcohol on occasion — a legal and widely used substance — is a waste of resources,” Judge Weinstein wrote.
The opinion stemmed from a case involving a now 38-year-old defendant from Queens, Tyrone Thomas. On March 10, 2016, Thomas pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute heroin for which he was sentenced to time served after spending 23 months in prison. After release, Thomas was subject to three years of supervised release.
The defendant, who had a past history of drug use, according to court documents, violated the terms of his supervised release in November 2017 when he consumed alcohol. In March 2018, probation reported that he had tested positive for alcohol use, and again he tested positive in May 2018 while participating in an outpatient drug treatment program.
He subsequently missed alcohol tests, was ordered to wear a monitoring device and failed and missed more tests. At a hearing on October 17, 2018, probation requested the defendant be sentenced to five months in prison with an additional two years of supervised release afterward.
Judge Weinstein pointed out that Thomas committed no crimes since he was released from prison and has been leading a productive and law-abiding life with the help of his family.
“The government seeks to punish the defendant for something that is legal, and of which an overwhelming majority of Americans approve,” Weinstein wrote in his opinion. “This would be unfair, since he is employed and has been otherwise compliant with the terms of his supervised release. The court will not incarcerate him for violating the conditions of supervised release when those violations are for habitual, social or approved alcohol use.
“The court should avoid a cycle of supervised release, use of alcohol and prison,” he continued. “Thomas has been unable or unwilling to comply with the conditions relating to alcohol for nearly a year, so he would be likely to remain in future violations of supervision conditions.”