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Supreme Court: GPS sex offender monitoring must be reasonable

One of the more important civil rights we all enjoy is the right to protection from government unduly poking its nose into our stuff. We have this right because the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, among other things,

“the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Unfortunately, the question of what should be considered an “unreasonable” search or seizure has been the subject of innumerable court rulings over the years, which makes it hard to answer. The same applies to the related question of what constitutes a “search” or “seizure.”

That second question came before the U.S. Supreme Court this week. And, although this interesting case originated in North Carolina, the reasoning presumably applies in any state.

The case involved a man who was adjudicated to be a recidivist sex offender. In such cases, North Carolina reserves the right to order offenders, as appropriate, to wear a GPS monitor around their ankles 24 hours a day for the rest of their lives.

For practical purposes, what that means is wearing a clunky, uncomfortable device all the time. Even worse, the ankle bracelet cannot be removed so the wearer is forced to be tethered to a wall during charging, which takes four to six hours every day.

The North Carolina man didn’t dispute that he’s a recidivist. He just wanted someone to consider whether this level of restriction on his freedom of movement was actually reasonable.

His hearing judge wasn’t interested. Both levels of North Carolina’s appellate courts glibly turned him away, reasoning that post-release sex offender registration and monitoring is civil -- not criminal -- in nature. Therefore, it could not meet the basic definition of a search or a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Not so, the U.S. Supreme Court said in an unsigned ruling. The Fourth Amendment applies to all searches and seizures, regardless of whether they’re done for civil or criminal purposes, the court noted. “The State's program is plainly designed to obtain information. And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject's body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.”

The high court then remanded the case back to the original court for consideration of whether the GPS monitoring program is, in this man’s case, reasonable or unduly burdensome.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Sex Offender's Future Monitoring Faces Review,” Dan McCue, March 30, 2015

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