Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Some Sex Offenders Required to be Monitored by GPS

The Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision this week regarding the requirement that certain sex offenders on probation be monitored by a GPS device.  The opinion was delivered in Commonwealth v. Guzman (SJC-11483 decided August 25, 2014).

The defendant pled guilty to multiple sex offenses related to his possession of child pornography and was sentenced to serve one year in jail.  When he was released, he was to serve five years of probation.  The prosecutor requested that the defendant be subject to GPS monitoring, but the sentencing judge declined to impose that condition.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the sentencing judge, ruling that Massachusetts law required imposition of the GPS condition.

There is no question that a Massachusetts statute mandates imposition of the GPS monitoring in cases like the defendant’s.  A sentencing judge has no discretion to refuse to order GPS monitoring of defendants who are convicted (either after trial or by plea) of certain sex offenses.  However, the defendant’s attorney creatively argued on appeal that requiring a sentencing judge to impose such a condition violated the defendant’s right to due process.

The defendant suggested that sentencing judges ought to be able to consider on a case-by-case basis whether GPS monitoring is appropriate, particularly for individuals convicted of noncontact sexual offenses.  The Court rejected this argument, noting that the Legislature has broad discretion to enact mandatory punishments for criminal offenses.  A statute calling for a mandatory sentence will be lawful as long as it is “reasonably related to the goals of sentencing and probation.”  The Court held that there is a rational basis for imposing mandatory GPS monitoring on certain sex offenders, as such a condition might deter future or repeat offenders and promote the security and well-being of the general public.  Therefore, mandatory GPS monitoring as a condition of probation is not unconstitutional.

While the mandatory sentence in this case involves the imposition of a GPS monitoring bracelet for certain sex offenders who are on probation, many mandatory sentences deal with minimum prison sentences that defendants must receive for certain crimes.  While some serious crimes like rape do not have mandatory minimum jail sentences, other crimes (notably many of the higher-level drug crimes) do carry mandatory minimums.  There is a constant argument within legal circles about whether mandatory minimum sentences serve the interest of justice.  Proponents of mandatory sentences argue that they ensure that serious punishment will be imposed against defendants who are convicted of serious crimes.  Opponents, on the other hand, argue that judges, who have been appointed in part because the governor believes they have the temperament and the judgement to impose appropriate sentences, should have complete discretion in determining whether a jail sentence is appropriate.  In any event, as this case reminds us, mandatory sentences that have been approved by the Legislature are constitutional and judges lack the authority to ignore them.

This case illustrates the serious potential consequences of being charged with a sex crime.  Anyone who is charged with such a crime, or is the target of an investigation, should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney.