Supreme Court questions North Carolina sex offender law

Supreme Court
Supreme Court

A North Carolina program of monitoring sex offenders by GPS needs closer judicial scrutiny, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In an unsigned and unanimous decision that could rattle a number of states, the court rejected North Carolina’s arguments and concluded the ankle-bracelet monitoring program amounts to a search. The decision means convicted felons like Torrey Dale Grady can now challenge the life-long monitoring.

“That conclusion, however, does not decide the ultimate question of the program’s constitutionality,” the court stated, noting that “the Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable searches.”

North Carolina judges must now re-examine the GPS monitoring program through a Fourth Amendment lens that’s adapting to new technologies. Whether it’s permitted, the high court explained Monday, depends on “the nature and purpose of the search and the extent to which the search intrudes upon reasonable privacy expectations.”

Luke Everett, one of the Durham, N.C.-based defense attorneys who petitioned the Supreme Court on Grady’s behalf, said in an email Monday that the court’s decision could prove “very significant” beyond his specific case.

“North Carolina and other states have basically taken the position that they can strap a GPS monitoring device to whomever they want to,” Everett said. “The court here is saying, no, that search has to be reasonable. In many cases, that's going to be impossible to demonstrate.”

Other states that can impose GPS monitoring requirements on released sexual offenders include California, where legislators likewise adopted a life-long monitoring program in 2006. Florida and Kansas also require life-long monitoring for some offenders.

Grady was indicted in 2006 in New Hanover County, N.C., for statutory rape and taking indecent liberties with a child. He pleaded guilty to one count of taking indecent liberties with a child and was sentenced to serve between 31 and 38 months in prison. He was released in 2009.

Grady, who is now 36, had previously been convicted of a second-degree sexual offense in 1997. The two convictions made him a recidivist under North Carolina law, leading to a judge’s determination in 2013 after a 20-minute hearing that he was subject to GPS monitoring for the rest of his life.

North Carolina’s monitoring program, established by state legislators in 2006, requires participants to wear transmitters around their ankles and a miniature tracking device around the shoulder or on a belt. A base unit, typically kept at home, is used to charge the equipment.

North Carolina officials had urged the Supreme Court not to consider Grady’s petitition, arguing in part that an insufficient factual record made it impossible “to balance the state’s perceived need to monitor sex offenders and the intrusions, if any, on (Grady) and other sex offenders like him.”

“We’ll keep fighting to use technology to keep communities safe from the worst offenders,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a statement early Monday evening.

“The terms of the program are extreme,” Everett and fellow attorney Mark L. Hayes stressed in a legal brief, noting that Grady “must charge his bracelet daily, which requires him to be plugged into a wall outlet at least once a day for four to six hours at a time.”

Hayes, who is also based in Durham, added in an email Monday that “the GPS anklet in this case was like having a cop tethered to you for the rest of your life – whether you were on the street, at your church or in your bed.”

As of last September, 602 North Carolina residents were subject to the state’s GPS monitoring.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals previously rejected claims that the monitoring program violated the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court of North Carolina declined to hear Grady’s appeal.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, relying strictly on legal briefs and without calling for oral argument, determined in the decision issued Monday that closer scrutiny is required.

In particular, the justices noted that in a prior case, the court held in 2012 that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a car, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search’ under the Fourth Amendment. Using similar reasoning, the court previously ruled having a drug-sniffing dog nose around a suspect’s front porch was a search.

Both prior decisions involved physical intrusions.

“It follows that a state also conducts a search when it attaches a device to a person’s body, without consent, for the purpose of tracking that individual’s movements,” the court said Monday.