What is a GPS monitoring device?

Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 265, Section 47 certain crimes require people placed on probation to wear a GPS monitoring device. These crimes include sex crimes and crimes against children.

How much would a GPS monitoring device interfere with your life? We hear about GPS devices all the time in the news and on television shows. They are everywhere in today’s world. Chances are that if you have a Smartphone in your pocket, you have a GPS device on you right now. For most people, when we are in control of a GPS, there is not a problem. But what would happen if a court ordered you to wear a GPS device? Would that interfere with your privacy?

A GPS monitoring device can be part of pre-trial release agreements or your conditions of probation. Currently, almost 4,000 people in the state have to wear devices. In the case we will soon talk about called Commonwealth v. Feliz (2019) the Supreme Court in Massachusetts tried to answer the question of whether or not a court ordering you to wear a GPS monitoring device goes against your constitutional rights.

What is a GPS monitoring bracelet?

A GPS monitoring device is a beacon that attaches to one of your ankles. The device monitors where you are at all times. It is a two by three inch plastic box with a rubber strap that wraps around your ankle. You cannot take it off or shut it off. The only thing you can do is recharge it, and that is your responsibility. The GPS monitoring bracelet is a condition a judge can impose:

  • At an arraignment
  • After the judge places a person on probation once the case has concluded

The court will demand or require that the bracelet be placed on the individual prior to being released. For example, if someone is in custody the judge will order that the Probation Department put the bracelet on before the person leaves the courthouse. If the person is in jail, they will be required to stay in jail until the jail brings them to the courthouse to install the device. Sometimes the Probation Department does not have a unit available to place on a person. In those cases the person will remain in jail until one is available. A person could wait up to one to two days in jail before obtaining one.

How does a court GPS work?

The court began its analysis by looking at how a GPS monitoring device works. Devices are usually one-piece or two-piece electronic objects worn around the ankle. Probation uses software called the electronic monitoring program (ELMO) to supervise people wearing the devices across the state. ELMO monitors work with probation service employees to keep track of devices.

A GPS device stores information about a person’s latitude and longitude, or where they are on the planet. It does this by pinging your location using satellites in space. The devices will only be timed right if there is connection with the satellites and also cellular service.

Probation is able to put exclusion zones into the ELMO system. Anytime the person wearing the device enters one of these zones the ELMO employees and probation get notified. If too much time passes and the alert cannot be explained or cleared the device wearer will be arrested.

The devices have not been perfect. Frequent problems have included:

  • Connection issues
  • False alerts
  • Battery charge issues
  • Not enough staff monitoring devices

What are the rules for a GPS bracelet?

A judge will determine the rules of the GPS bracelet. Fortunately, your attorney will work to minimize the restrictions the judge may place on you. A judge could restrict you to your home for 24 hours a day, otherwise known as house arrest. A judge could also place a curfew on you to ensure you are home by certain hours of the day. Finally a judge could order you to stay away from a certain geographic area. This area is often where the alleged victim of the case resides.

How long does a GPS bracelet stay on?

A GPS bracelet could be installed at an arraignment. It could also be installed after the judge places a person on probation once the case has concluded. The bracelet will stay on for as long as the judge orders it to be on. This depends on how long the case is pending. It could be months or years. If the bracelet is placed on as a condition of probation, this could extend to up to ten years or more.

There are circumstances where those conditions can be changed. As the case proceeds through court, if there is a change in circumstances (like the case becomes weaker or some time passes), the defendant can ask the judge for a reconsideration of a condition or an amendment. It is ideal not to have a bracelet. However, if a judge orders you to wear one, keep in mind that the alternative was probably jail.

Do I have a right to not wear a GPS bracelet?

Under both the constitutions of the United States and Massachusetts you have right to be protected from unreasonable searches. An unreasonable search is a search that goes beyond the government’s lawful authority and violates your privacy.

The Massachusetts court that decided to consider this case took inspiration from an earlier US Supreme Court case called Grady v. North Carolina (2015). In that case the court determined that GPS monitoring counts as a search and is not always reasonable.

In the case we are about to talk about Massachusetts had to decide if it agreed or disagreed with the US Supreme Court on if a GPS monitoring device is a reasonable search.

Does a GPS bracelet violate my constitutional rights?

In Grady the defendant pled guilty to possessing and distributing child pornography. He was sentenced to five, 5-year terms of probation and two, 1.5-year jail terms. Because he was now a convicted sex offender, Massachusetts’s law said that he needed to wear a GPS monitoring device as a condition of probation. The defendant challenged this requirement by arguing that ordering him to wear the device violated his constitutional right against unreasonable searches.

When is it illegal to have to wear a GPS device?

According to the court in Grady, in order to lawfully order a GPS monitoring device the government must prove that the device is reasonable. A reasonable device is a device that is actually effective in protecting the public and rehabilitates the person wearing it. In other words, ordering a person to wear a GPS monitoring device cannot be random. It must serve some legitimate purpose.

Moreover, not all reasonable searches require a warrant or probable cause. The government also has an strong interest in protecting the public from sexual predators and rehabilitating sex offenders. A person who is convicted of a sex offense does not have the same expectation of privacy as a person who is not.

However, this does not mean that a search that is invasive is okay. In fact, the final decision of the court was that a law requiring a GPS monitoring device on all probationers is not reasonable. It is unconstitutional.

Further, the court had two major reasons for their decision:

  • The government did not prove that a GPS monitoring device does enough to rehabilitate the person wearing it to be reasonable
  • The GPS device is too much of a privacy intrusion to be reasonable

The court explained the privacy intrusion part by saying that a GPS monitoring device is both a physical and personal intrusion into the life of the person wearing it. All the problems with the device like loosing connection and false alerts means that the person wearing the device needs to go out of their way to solve technical problems that they are not expected to resolve.

In the case of the defendant, although he was convicted he did not have a history of psychological problems and was classified as a low risk level one sex offender. The court said that these factors needed to be taken into account as well.



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