U.S. Supreme Court Puts States' Sex Offender Monitoring Into Question

A North Carolina program that uses GPS systems to monitor sex offenders will get scrutinized again by the state's highest court.
by | March 31, 2015 AT 11:10 AM

By Anne Blythe

A North Carolina program that uses GPS systems to monitor sex offenders will get scrutinized again by the state's highest court.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered the N.C. Supreme Court to reconsider a legal challenge by Torrey Dale Grady, a sex offender arguing that his constitutional rights are being violated by the program.

The ultimate decision in the case has the potential for a ripple affect across the country. More than 40 states have adopted laws in the past decade that call for some type of GPS monitoring of sex offenders. Some states have expanded their programs to monitor gang members and domestic abusers.

North Carolina is one of eight states that subjects some offenders to a lifetime of monitoring.

Grady, 36, of Wilmington, argues that requiring him to wear an electronic monitor around his ankle is a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches and seizures.

Grady was accused in 2006 in New Hanover County of 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 almost three years in prison. He was released in 2009.

That offense came after Grady was convicted in 1997 of a second-degree sexual offense. He was 17 at the time, and the registry does not list the age of the victim.

The two convictions classifiy him as a recidivist under North Carolina law.

In May 2013, after a 20-minute hearing, a N.C. Superior Court judge ordered him to a lifetime of monitoring.

His lawyers say he must wear the monitoring contraption at all times, including while it is charging, which can take as many as six hours.

Attorneys for Grady argued that the monitoring he is subject to is so extreme, it constitutes an illegal search.

The U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed and sent the case back to the N.C. Supreme Court for a fuller hearing on that topic.

"The state's program is plainly designed to obtain information," the justices ruled in an unsigned opinion. "And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject's body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search."

That conclusion, the justices stated, did not decide the ultimate question of the constitutionality of the North Carolina program. Some 600 North Carolina residents are subject to the monitoring.

"As GPS surveillance technology advances, the public will continue to demand its use in more -- and more intrusive -- searches," Grady's petition stated.

The U.S. justices likened Grady's case a prior ruling.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held that placing tracking devices on cars to follow their movement was a search subject to constitutional limits.

North Carolina officials contended in their arguments that Grady's complaints were "outdated" and "uncorroborated." They argued that he presented no evidence of interruptions to his daily life, nor did he provide firm numbers for how often program administrators must visit his home.

Counsel from the N.C. attorney general's office argued that Grady had resorted "to hyperbole to characterize the severity and offensiveness of the 'trespass' resulting from the monitoring."

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, an advocate of the N.C. monitoring program established in 2006 by state legislators, said Monday he was not deterred by the ruling.

"We'll keep fighting to use technology to keep communities safe from the worst offenders," Cooper said in a statement released by his spokeswoman.

It was not clear on Monday when the N.C. Supreme Court would take another look at the case.

(c)2015 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)