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Supreme Court narrows lifetime GPS tracking of sex offenders

August 16, 2019
FILE - This March 22, 2017, photo provided by the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina shows Torrey Grady. North Carolina’s highest court has decided some repeat convicted sex offenders shouldn’t be subject to perpetual tracking by satellite-linked ankle bracelets after serving their full sentences. A divided state Supreme Court ruled on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019 for Grady, whose case already went to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as for similarly situated offenders. (New Hanover County Sheriff's Office via AP)
FILE - This March 22, 2017, photo provided by the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina shows Torrey Grady. North Carolina’s highest court has decided some repeat convicted sex offenders shouldn’t be subject to perpetual tracking by satellite-linked ankle bracelets after serving their full sentences. A divided state Supreme Court ruled on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019 for Grady, whose case already went to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as for similarly situated offenders. (New Hanover County Sheriff's Office via AP)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Some repeat convicted sex offenders in North Carolina who’ve completed their sentences should no longer be subject to perpetual monitoring by satellite-linked bracelets because it’s unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

A majority on the state’s highest court expanded a lower appeals court decision that last year concluded GPS monitoring of Torrey Grady — collecting information on his whereabouts potentially for the rest of his life — would equate to an unreasonable search.

The justices also decided the lifetime satellite-based tracking violates Fourth Amendment rights when imposed on anyone only because the person has been convicted of multiple sex offenses and it continues after the person has finished all punishments.

About 475 convicted sex offenders in the state who aren’t currently subject to law enforcement supervision participate in lifetime satellite-based monitoring, according to North Carolina Community Corrections. Spokesman Greg Thomas said the agency didn’t immediately know what portion of those people would no longer face such monitoring ordered solely because they had been declared a recidivist, in alignment with the decision. More than 24,000 people are currently listed in the state sex offender’s registry.

“Even if (the) defendant has no reasonable expectation of privacy concerning where he lives because he is required to register as a sex offender, he does not thereby forfeit his expectation of privacy in all other aspects of his daily life,” Associate Justice Anita Earls wrote in the majority opinion. “This is especially true with respect to unsupervised individuals like (Grady) who, unlike probationers and parolees ... have no ongoing relationship with the state.”

Earls wrote convicted sex offenders would still be subject to lifetime monitoring if they were designated by state law as a sexually violent predator, had been convicted of an aggravated offense, or were adults convicted of statutory rape or sex offense of someone under age 13.

The monitoring equipment allows law enforcement officials to collect information on the whereabouts of past sex offenders, who must wear the bracelet at all times. The bracelet must be charged daily for up to two hours, leaving the offender tethered to an electrical outlet, according to Friday’s decision.

The state’s attorneys defending the practice argued it allows law enforcement to solve crimes by excluding suspects and speeding up the apprehension of criminals. But no specific evidence was presented showing the program has helped capture or exonerate a suspect since it began with a North Carolina law in 2007, Earls wrote.

“The satellite program constitutes a substantial intrusion into those privacy interests without any showing by the state that the program furthers its interest in solving crimes that have been committed, preventing the commission of sex crimes, or protecting the public,” Earls said.

Associate Justice Paul Newby, writing a dissenting opinion, said the majority on the court failed to explain why GPS monitoring would be unconstitutional for people only declared as recidivist offenders. He said Earls’ opinion opened the door for all situations for lifetime monitoring to be struck down.

The majority “applies an unbridled analysis which understates the crimes, overstates repeat sex offenders’ legitimate expectations of privacy, and minimizes the need to protect society from this limited class of dangerous sex offenders,” Newby wrote. Justice Mike Morgan joined the dissent in the case, which was heard by six of the court’s seven current members.

Grady, who was convicted of sex-related offenses in 1997 and 2006, had already taken his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2015 declared the monitoring was a serious privacy concern. But that court left it up to states to decide whether imposed monitoring is reasonable and for how long.

Grady’s case returned to state court. A state Court of Appeals panel overturned a New Hanover County trial judge’s decision in 2016 that upheld lifetime monitoring of Grady.

Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who filed a legal brief supporting Grady’s case, praised Friday’s ruling: “The court affirmed that once a person has served their sentence, the government can’t strap an invasive tracking device to them and record their every movement for life.”

Grady is now in prison for failing to register as a sex offender, according to state correction records. One of his attorneys didn’t immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

Attorney General Josh Stein, whose office represented the state in the case, had no immediately comment late Friday.

Twelve states allow lifetime monitoring, Earls’ opinion said. In North Carolina, subjects can ask officials that the requirement be terminated a year after they complete their sentences, including probation and supervision.

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This story has been corrected to show that Grady was convicted in 2006, not 2007.

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