The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a statute requiring defendants convicted of possessing or distributing child pornography to wear a GPS monitor violates the state constitution. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Feliz.
In December of 2014, the defendant was arrested and charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. He was indicted on two counts of possession and five counts of distribution. He pled guilty in superior court in April of 2016. The judge sentenced him to serve five years of probation and ordered him to register as a sex offender. In addition to other conditions of probation that mainly imposed restrictions on the defendant’s contact with minors, he was ordered to wear a GPS monitor. There is a Massachusetts statute that requires anyone convicted of child pornography charges to be subject to GPS monitoring. The defendant objected to wearing the GPS monitor and argued the statute was unconstitutional. A superior court judge rejected the defendant’s constitutional arguments and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed to hear the case. The SJC concluded the GPS requirement in this case constituted an unconstitutional search on the defendant.
The SJC spent considerable time explaining how the GPS system works in Massachusetts. Nearly 4,000 people in the Commonwealth are being monitored by GPS devices on any given day. Dozens of probation officers are responsible for watching the movements of these people, and the monitoring center collects information about the defendants’ movements. Accordingly, for constitutional analysis, GPS monitoring constitutes a search. There are constant logistical challenges for people who are required to wear GPS monitors. As a result of connection problems with the satellites that run the system, probation officers often receive false alarms that defendants are no longer being monitored. Some GPS systems have weak battery lives, which can cause the devices to lose power sooner than expected and result in an alert being sent to a probation officer. Each time there is an alert of a problem with a GPS system, the probation officer calls the defendant to try to resolve the issue. In some cases, when the problem can’t be solved, a warrant issues for the defendant’s arrest. During the 10 months the defendant was wearing his monitor, he was subject to at least 31 alerts, which required him to work with a probation officer to ensure he was being properly tracked.
Because GPS monitoring constitutes a search, the question in this case was whether the search was constitutionally reasonable. The Court concluded the automatic requirement that all defendants convicted of violating child pornography laws must wear GPS monitors is unconstitutional. Instead, sentencing judges are required to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether the imposition of a GPS monitor is reasonable. The defendant here was convicted of non-contact sex offenses and had no psychiatric diagnosis establishing a compulsion toward sexually-deviant behavior. He had not violated his probation or pretrial conditions of release. Further, the Sex Offender Registry Board classified the defendant as a level 1 offender, which means he posed a low degree of risk to the public (and a low risk to commit another sex crime). Given all of these factors, the SJC ruled it was unreasonable to subject the defendant to GPS monitoring.