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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Limits Use of GPS Monitoring on Defendants Waiting for Trial

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today substantially limited the number of cases where a judge can order a defendant to wear a GPS monitor while awaiting trial.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Norman

In July of 2015, the defendant appeared in the Boston Municipal Court to be arraigned on a charge of possession with intent to distribute a class B substance (subsequent offense).  The judge who presided over the arraignment ordered the defendant to stay out of Boston and to wear a GPS monitor.  The following month, there was an armed robbery and home invasion at a Medford home.  The cops asked the agency that administers the GPS system whether anyone wearing a GPS was present at the scene of the crime, and it turned out the defendant was there.  His GPS monitor also established he was at a location in Everett both before and after the home invasion.  The cops obtained a warrant to search the Everett location, where they found incriminating evidence against the defendant.  He was later identified by one of the victim’s of the home invasion, and he was eventually indicted on multiple charges, including masked armed robbery. Once in court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that it was improper for a judge to have ordered him to wear a GPS monitor in the first place.  If the initial GPS order was unlawful, then evidence obtained from the GPS is inadmissible in court.  A superior court judge allowed the defendant’s motion to suppress and the Commonwealth appealed.  The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

The United States Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have previously ruled that attaching a GPS monitor to a defendant constitutes a search.  The question, then, is whether the search by way of GPS monitoring was reasonable – and therefore constitutional – given the facts of this case.  The Court held the imposition of GPS monitoring on this defendant was not reasonable.  The statutes that govern the bail rules indicate that conditions may be imposed to ensure a defendant returns to court, or to protect an alleged victim.  Those statutes do not permit conditions to address the general deterrence of future crimes.  Therefore, conditions imposed against the defendant here could only be aimed at making sure the defendant came back to court to face trial and making sure the defendant did not intimidate the potential witnesses against him.  The Court determined that forcing the defendant to wear a GPS monitor would not increase the chance he would show up in court.  Further, the condition that banished the defendant from Boston while his case was pending would not have provided incentive for him to appear for his court dates.  Additionally, given the nature of the charges, there were likely no witnesses that needed to be protected from possible intimidation.  Accordingly, because there were no legitimate governmental interests that would be served by the defendant wearing a GPS, that condition should not have been imposed at his initial arraignment.  The evidence obtained as a result of the GPS monitoring will not be admissible at trial.

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