GPS Monitoring of Sex Offenders Is a Fourth Amendment Search

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U.S. Supreme Court Decision Another Reminder that Sex Offender Restrictions are Under Scrutiny

Forcing someone to wear an ankle bracelet to monitor her or his location is a Fourth Amendment search, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a unanimous opinion. The short opinion, handed down by the entire Court and not attributed to one author, indicated that the use of a GPS tracker on an individual required the lower court to determine whether the search was unreasonable, and thus a violation of the Fourth Amendment. This case continues a nationwide trend of rethinking post-release restrictions on sex offenders, including the recent California Supreme Court decision In Re Taylor and the subsequent decision by California prison officials to loosen residency restrictions.

In Grady v. North Carolina, the defendant was twice convicted as a sex offender and ordered to wear a GPS monitor at all times so that his location could be monitored. The tracker was installed against his consent, and he was ordered to wear it for life. Grady challenged the Court, arguing that the tracking device qualified as an unreasonable search. The Court returned the case to the lower court, instructing it to consider whether attaching the GPS tracker to someone or something is a “reasonable” search. The Court did not discuss whether the search was constitutionally unreasonable — it only decided that a search had occurred.

It is unclear whether the lower court will determine a GPS tracker violated the defendant’s constitutional rights and whether that decision would eventually return to the Supreme Court to be fully resolved. Nonetheless, this decision is another indication that post-release restrictions on sex offenders are under the spotlight and may need to be reconsidered at the local level. The time is ripe for municipalities to rethink current restrictions on sex offenders and whether they may run afoul of one or more of these recent determinations. It is important for localities to balance public safety concerns against the constitutional rights of sex offenders, and the current trend is to question how far these rights can be constrained once an individual has been released from incarceration.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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