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GPS monitoring of sex offenders for life? Supreme Court reverses N.C. case

The US Supreme Court reversed lower court rulings that upheld a North Carolina law allowing a sex offender to be put under GPS monitoring for the rest of his life.

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The Supreme Court Building is shown in this Sept. 18, 2014 file photo in Washington.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File

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The United States Supreme Court on Monday summarily reversed a North Carolina judicial decision upholding a program that allows state officials to use a GPS device to monitor the movements of repeat sex offenders 24 hours a day, seven days a week – for the rest of their lives.

A state appeals court and the North Carolina Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the lifetime surveillance program. They ruled that since the program was created under civil law, rather than criminal law, the GPS monitoring did not amount to a search under the Fourth Amendment.

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In a five-page unsigned opinion, the US Supreme Court reversed that ruling and declared that Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches apply to government actions in both the civil and criminal spheres.

The court also said that any time a state attaches a monitoring device to a person’s body, without consent, for the purpose of tracking that individual’s movements, it amounts to a search.

“The State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information,” the high court said. “And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.”

After reversing those aspects of the North Carolina decisions, the high court remanded the case back to the lower courts to decide the ultimate question in the case – whether requiring an individual who has already served his entire criminal sentence to submit to GPS monitoring for the rest of his or her life is an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

“The North Carolina courts did not examine whether the State’s monitoring program is reasonable – when properly viewed as a search – and we will not do so in the first instance,” the court said.

The issue arose in the case of a North Carolina man, Torrey Dale Grady, who had been twice convicted of a sex offense. He was found guilty of a second degree sexual offense in 1996, when he was 17 years old. In 2006, he was convicted of “taking indecent liberties with a child.”

Mr. Grady received a three-year sentence for that crime and completed his prison term in 2009. The following year, the North Carolina Department of Correction made an initial determination that based on his two convictions, Grady was a recidivist. He was thus considered eligible for the state’s satellite-based monitoring program.

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After a brief hearing, a judge ordered Grady to enroll in the monitoring program “for the remainder of his natural life.”

He was required to wear an ankle bracelet and keep a GPS monitoring station in his home. State officials were authorized to enter his home at any time to service the equipment. In addition, the ankle bracelet must be recharged, which meant that Grady himself must spend four to six hours every day plugged into a wall socket.

In challenging the state program, Grady’s lawyers argued that the monitoring amounts to an open-ended violation of their client’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.

“By any reckoning, the monitoring in this case is as invasive a trespass as any that this court has previously considered,” Durham, N.C., lawyer Lewis Everett wrote in his brief urging the court to take up the case.

“Not only has the state attached itself to the petitioner’s body for the rest of his life, but it will also enter his home on an ongoing basis to service the instrument of its surveillance.”

Grady is not alone in the monitoring program. More than 600 individuals are currently subject to GPS monitoring in North Carolina.

And North Carolina isn’t the only state using it. Since 2005, some 40 states have passed laws authorizing GPS monitoring for sex offenders, according to Grady’s brief. Eight of them – including North Carolina – provide for such monitoring for the remainder of one’s life.

In addition, other groups of offenders are also facing GPS monitoring, including convicted gang members and those found guilty of domestic abuse.

The Supreme Court’s action in the Grady case comes at a time when the high court has become increasingly protective of Fourth Amendment rights, particularly when high-tech surveillance or monitoring equipment is being used.

In 2012, the justices decided 9 to 0 that federal agents violated the constitutional rights of a suspected drug dealer in Washington when they attached a GPS monitoring device to his vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.

In 2013, the high court held that bringing a drug sniffing dog onto a front porch to detect suspected illegal drug activities inside the house amounted to an unreasonable search if done without a warrant.

And last year, the court held unanimously that a government search of a cellphone without a warrant was unconstitutional – in part because of the wealth of digital information the phone could reveal about the owner’s life and movements. 

Despite taking a strong stance on Fourth Amendment protections, the high court has been less sympathetic to sex offenders trying to overturn civil commitment laws.

In a 2010 case, the justices upheld a federal law authorizing the civil commitment of individuals deemed to be sexually dangerous – even after they’d served their entire prison term. The court voted 7 to 2 in that case.

The Grady case is somewhat different. The North Carolina judge based his decision on the fact that Grady had been twice convicted of a sex crime. The judge did not examine whether Grady actually constituted a future danger to the community, only whether he was a repeat offender.    

In attacking North Carolina’s GPS monitoring, Grady’s lawyer, Mr. Everett, argued that the state must prove more than just two prior convictions to authorize it as a reasonable search.

Everett conceded that his client, as a registered sex offender, has a reduced expectation of privacy. He also acknowledged that North Carolina has a legitimate government interest in seeking to protect others – including its children – from sexual predators. But the lawyer insisted that in Grady’s case GPS monitoring for the rest of his life was too broad and too intrusive to pass constitutional muster.

He said there must be a balancing between the state’s interest in protecting citizens and his client’s right to be free from unreasonable searches.

The case was Grady v. North Carolina (14-593).