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Supreme Court rules that ankle bracelet monitoring equals a Fourth Amendment Search!

Posted by Phoenix Harris | Mar 31, 2015 | 0 Comments

In an emphatic summary reversal of the lower court, the Supreme Court held in a per curiam summary reversal Grady v. North Carolina, No. 14-593 (S. Ct. March 30, 2015) that satellite monitoring programs for sex offenders - the ankle bracelet - does amount to a search pursuant to the Fourth Amendment and therefore must be reasonable.  This has implications for all defendants, not just sex offenders.

The Grady v. North Carolina decision includes some incredibly useful language. 

"Petitioner Torrey Dale Grady was convicted in North Carolina trial courts of a second degree sexual offense in 1997 and of taking indecent liberties with a child in 2006. After serving his sentence for the latter crime, Grady was ordered to appear in New Hanover County Superior Court for a hearing to determine whether he should be subjected to satellite-based monitoring (SBM) as a recidivist sex offender.  See N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14–208.40(a)(1), 14– 208.40B (2013).  Grady did not dispute that his prior convictions rendered him a recidivist under the relevant North Carolina statutes.  He argued, however, that the monitoring program — under which he would be forced to wear tracking devices at all times — would violate his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Unpersuaded, the trial court ordered Grady to enroll in the program and be monitored for the rest of his life....

The only explanation provided below for the rejection of Grady's challenge is [a] passage from [a prior state ruling].  And the only theory we discern in that passage is that the State's system of nonconsensual satellite-based monitoring does not entail a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  That theory is inconsistent with this Court's precedents....

[T]he State argues that we cannot be sure its program for satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders collects any information.  If the very name of the program does not suffice to rebut this contention, the text of the statute surely does....  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.

That conclusion, however, does not decide the ultimate question of the program's constitutionality.  The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable searches.  The reasonableness of a search depends on the totality of the circumstances, including the nature and purpose of the search and the extent to which the search intrudes upon reasonable privacy expectations.  See, e.g., Samson v. California, 547 U. S. 843 (2006) (suspicionless search of parolee was reasonable); Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U. S. 646 (1995) (random drug testing of student athletes was reasonable).  The North Carolina courts did not examine whether the State's monitoring program is reasonable — when properly viewed as a search — and we will not do so in the first instance."

Encouragingly, the Court is evidencing a real comfort level with modern times and its technology implications. This holding is a wonderful follow up to the victory for the attorneys and defendant in the recent case of Riley v. California where the Court held that searches of cell phones require a warrant.  In that unanimous opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

"Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life,” Boyd, supra, at 630. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple— get a warrant."

Both of these opinions build on the Court's holding in United States v. Jones, where the Court unanimously held that the installation of a GPS tracking device constitutes a search triggering Fourth Amendment protections.

These Supreme Court decisions have a significant impact upon our practice as defense attorneys and now enable us to even more vigorously represent our clients accused of sexually-based offenses, on the registry, or on bond for the same.  But in an even broader sense, the Grady holding empowers us to stand with confidence before any Court and argue what seems to be common sense - Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure apply to our everyday life no matter how technologically advanced we are, and all citizens have a right to privacy. 

About the Author

Phoenix Harris

Ms. Harris was named one of the "Top 100 Trial Lawyers" by the National Trial Lawyers Association in 2014, "Top 40 Under 40" in 2015, "Top Lawyer" by Who's Who Global Directory, and a "Rising Star" by Super Lawyers in 2016. In the past year alone, Ms. Harris has been responsible for dismissals, acquittals, or reduced charges in many serious cases where her clients were unjustly charged, such as: accessory to homicide, felonious mob assault, attempted malicious wounding, robbery, abduction, arson, possession with intent to distribute, burglary, counterfeiting, sodomy with a minor, child abuse, domestic assault, and more

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