Appeals court upholds judge’s decision to toughen Miami student's probation after interview with student newspaper

In retrospect, a Miami student’s interview with a reporter — in which he described his threat to kill the president as “pretty funny” — was ill-advised, considering he’d expressed remorse to a judge only a month earlier at a probation hearing.

The resulting newspaper article in The Reporter, the Miami Dade College’s student newspaper, prompted a judge to toughen Joaquin Serrapio’s probation because “the original conditions were not sufficient to accomplish the purposes of probation.” The modifications included eight more months in home confinement and 45 days in a halfway house.

Serrapio appealed the increased sanctions because he believed “that these modifications violated his rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the First Amendment.” In a ruling handed down last week though, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s modified probation as constitutional.

When he was originally sentenced in 2012, Serrapio was placed on probation for three years and ordered to complete 250 hours of community service. At his sentencing hearing, the judge suggested that he speak to students and peers about the lessons he’d learned and the “consequences of the cyber world.”

Later, The Reporter approached Serrapio and asked him to write a column about his experiences. After he submitted the guest column, another Reporter journalist called him to talk with him about the trial. In that interview, Serrapio told reporter Karla Barrios, “A lot of good has come out of this, even for my music.” Serrapio said that a lot of people came to his band’s show the Saturday after he was released from jail “to see the kid who threatened to kill the president.”

Serrapio’s guest column, titled “The Biggest Mistake of My Life,” cautioned that “posts are available for the world to see and your words and/or pictures will follow you for the rest of your life.” It was published alongside Barrios’ news story, which pointed out a contrast in what Serrapio wrote and what he told the reporter. After the story was published, the judge revised the terms of his probation.

The appeals court held that double jeopardy was not violated because the modifications did not change Serrapio’s “legitimate expectations” and because the court did not lengthen his three-year term of probation. The court also said the probation modification did not violate due process because Serrapio and his attorney did not express their concerns to the district court prior to proceeding with the modification hearing.

Serrapio’s First Amendment rights were not violated, according to the court, because his interview in the college paper had direct bearing on the issue being tried. According to the court opinion, “A sentencing court has always been free to consider a wide range of relevant material.”