Supreme Court Says Lifetime GPS Monitoring Of Sex Offenders May Be Unconstitutional

from the slowly-restoring-the-Fourth dept

Most people would agree that cops slapping a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle for months or years at a time would have Fourth Amendment implications. It’s often the length of the intrusion that has bothered courts the most (and mostly at state level, not federal), not the initial surreptitiousness of the GPS placement. Once it starts resembling a long-term tracking of a person’s movements, some courts (including the Supreme Court) have declared a warrant requirement should be in place.

When it comes to tracking recidivist sex offenders for the rest of their lives, most people — and most courts — don’t see this as much of an issue. Both involve the long-term tracking of individuals, but more people can stomach the idea of permanent tab-keeping on known sex offenders than on people only suspected of criminal activity.

The context matters — at least in terms of how much of the population views the potential intrusion. But context doesn’t matter when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, as the US Supreme Court recently ruled.

If the government puts a GPS tracker on you, your car, or any of your personal effects, it counts as a search—and is therefore protected by the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court clarified and affirmed that law on Monday, when it ruled on Torrey Dale Grady v. North Carolina, before sending the case back to that state’s high court. The Court’s short but unanimous opinion helps make sense of how the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, interacts with the expanding technological powers of the U.S. government.

What’s interesting about this recent unanimous ruling is that it extends Fourth Amendment protections to convicted criminals, rather than just to suspected criminals. It’s also a very short opinion — partially due to the lack of dissent — that gets straight to the heart of why the lower court’s decision was wrong, starting with its rejection of the ruling in US v. Jones.

The only explanation provided below for the rejection of Grady’s challenge is the quoted passage from State v. Jones. And the only theory we discern in that passage is that the State’s system of nonconsensual satellite-based monitoring does not entail a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. That theory is inconsistent with this Court’s precedents.

The State further argued that the Jones decision did not apply because the monitoring program is civil in nature, rather than criminal. The Supreme Court corrects this misconception.

It is well settled,” however, “that the Fourth Amendment’s protection extends beyond the sphere of criminal investigations,” Ontario v. Quon, 560 U. S. 746, 755 (2010), and the government’s purpose in collecting information does not control whether the method of collection constitutes a search. A building inspector who enters a home simply to ensure compliance with civil safety regulations has undoubtedly conducted a search under the Fourth Amendment.

More ridiculously, the State tried to claim that a lifetime monitoring program may not actually collect information about the subject’s movements and whereabouts — a non-conclusion it reached by dumping the burden of proof on the plaintiff. This, too, is treated harshly by the Justices.

Without evidence that it is acting to obtain information, the State argues, “there is no basis upon which this Court can determine whether North Carolina conducts a ‘search’ of an offender enrolled in its SBM program.” Ibid. (citing Jones, 565 U. S., at ___, n. 5 (slip op., at 7, n. 5) (noting that a government intrusion is not a search unless “done to obtain information”)). In other words, the State argues that we cannot be sure its program for satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders collects any information. If the very name of the program does not suffice to rebut this contention, the text of the statute surely does:

“The satellite-based monitoring program shall use a system that provides all of the following:

“(1) Time-correlated and continuous tracking of the geographic location of the subject . . . .
“(2) Reporting of subject’s violations of prescriptive and proscriptive schedule or location requirements.” N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §14–208.40(c).

The State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information. And since it does so by physically intruding on a Cite as: 575 U. S. ____ (2015) 5 Per Curiam subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.

While the Supreme Court didn’t go so far as to rule all such tracking programs as Fourth Amendment searches, it did vacate the state Supreme Court’s decision and makes it clear that lower courts are to address this issue, rather than gloss over potential Fourth Amendment ramifications.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Says Lifetime GPS Monitoring Of Sex Offenders May Be Unconstitutional”

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24 Comments
TKnarr (profile) says:

Re: How come felons losing the right to vote isn't...

The court isn’t saying it violates the Constitutional rights of the person. They’re saying the lower court erred in not considering the issue at all. Now the lower court’s got to go back and reconsider the balancing between the 4th Amendment and the case the state presents for why they have a compelling need to monitor the offender after he’s served his time. As far as voting rights, most convicted felons regain their right to vote after completing their sentence. Only a minority of states don’t automatically restore suffrage, and almost all of them allow for a petition to restore it. Only in very limited cases is the right to vote lost permanently.

I’m of the opinion that these sorts of programs should be thrown out entirely. If he’s that dangerous that he can never be trusted again, why is he being let out of jail? And if he’s safe enough to re-enter the community, why are we treating him like he’ll never be? Either up-front sentence him to a lifetime or other term on parole, or let him get on with his life.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: How come felons losing the right to vote isn't...

Either up-front sentence him to a lifetime or other term on parole, or let him get on with his life.

That would require the system, and society, to admit that they consider murdering someone to be a lesser crime than peeing in public, or flashing someone(kid or otherwise), or whatever other crime landed someone on the sex offender registry. Much easier to just have on ‘official’ punishment for a set amount of time, and then an ‘unofficial’ one after that that never ends.

Assault, manslaughter, outright murder? Once you’ve done your time your ‘debt’ to society is considered fulfilled, and you can go on with your life.

Commit any sort of sexual based crime? Yeah, your life is over, you’re going to carry that with you until you die.

Western society has it’s priorities all sorts of screwed up, and how it treats violence versus anything sexual is probably one of the greater examples of this.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: How come felons losing the right to vote isn't...

“Wait, putting this on a sex offender is against the constitution, but denying felons the right to vote is not? I mean, not only are you punishing the felon but ensuring they don’t have the right to vote for any chance that might affect them.”

Loss of voting rights and firearms rights are PART of the sentencing after conviction (and once the sentence is met, you can petition a court to have them reinstated).

A LOT of this tracking of pedophiles is being done AFTER they’ve served whatever sentence and/or parole they were given.

In the letter of the law, they’re “rehabilitated” and can live in society. Even though there’s a 100% recidivism rate (we’re not talking peeing in public here).

If the courts made lifetime BPS monitoring a PART of the Sentence, there wouldn’t be a 4th Amendment (or any other) Constitutional issue.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'Who cares about stopping crime or protecting kids, I've got soundbites to make!'

In November 2011, the Miami Herald reported on the fate of the former Julia Tuttle Causeway colony, which former residents nicknamed “Bookville”. Analysts studying the colony unanimously agreed on two relevant issues: the inability to find a stable home for offenders increased the risk that they would re-offend, and the close proximity of offenders to schools or parks did not increase the possibility that past offenders would re-offend.

So making it impossible for sex-offenders to find housing increases the odds for them to re-offend, yet even faced with these findings the city doubled-down and insisted that the laws that caused the ‘colony’ stayed in place… gotta love pure emotional-based laws, especially when they are directly contradicted by the evidence. /s

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s sad the Supreme Court ruled that the government can’t GPS track individuals, but AT&T and Verizon are free to record people’s movements and store that information indefinitely.

Don’t say I agreed to location tracking when I signed up for my cellphone. I didn’t agree to any location tracking. Please don’t say the phone companies need location information for billing purposes. Most phone companies bill customers every 30 days, so there’s no reason to store location information for 5 years. Or 20+ years in AT&T’s case.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Worst argument ever

the State argues that we cannot be sure its program for satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders collects any information.
So if you’re not collecting any information, then why are you wasting money on this. Basically, the State has argued that it either violates the Fourth Amendment or is stupid.
Probably a little bit of both.

DogBreath says:

Simple fix really...

get a copyright on the sex offender (they are a real piece of work [art] in a fixed medium created by a collaboration between two authors [generally one male & one female]) and you can track him/her for life plus 70 years in the U.S., and with the Berne Convention you can even legally track them in many foreign countries up to 50 years after death. That should make the Supreme Court happy because after all, it is only for a limited time (that limited time being until 50-70 years after the sex offender ceases to be alive).

Knittyliz says:

GPS

A LOT of this tracking of pedophiles is being done AFTER they’ve served whatever sentence and/or parole they were given.

-No, it’s a part of the sentencing. Not sure where you’re getting your information. When a person is sentenced to, for example, 7 years, that person is supposed to be told in court at the same time of the lifetime supervision too. It can be taken off of some people in some states, after age 65 or so.

In the letter of the law, they’re “rehabilitated” and can live in society. Even though there’s a 100% recidivism rate (we’re not talking peeing in public here).

-Again, not sure in where you get your information. Recidivism rates for convicted sex offenders in the United States is 7%.

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