Commonwealth v. Feliz, SJC No. 12545. Oral Argument September 5, 2018.
What law is in issue? In Massachusetts, any person convicted of certain enumerated sexual offenses must, as a condition of probation, wear a GPS monitor at all times. Mass. Gen. Laws c. 265, § 47.
Why was this appeal filed? In 2016, appellant Feliz pled guilty to possession and dissemination of child pornography. Feliz challenges the statute mandating GPS monitoring as an ongoing unlawful search in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article XIV of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Feliz further submits that the statute serves no rehabilitative function. The inflexible mandate permits no individualized assessment of an offender’s risk. Additionally, the GPS equipment fails repeatedly, threatening his livelihood and inducing chronic anxiety.
What does Feliz seek? On appeal, Feliz objects not to the use of GPS but to its universal use, and seeks a ruling that the mandatory requirement is unsupportable where applied without exception or discretion. Feliz wants courts to be able to waive the mandatory use of GPS for non-contact offenses where a judge determines that the risk of re-offense does not indicate GPS is necessary.
What was said at trial? Evidence was adduced at trial from experts and a probation officer that GPS monitors had no bearing on recidivism. The trial judge, however, as of the view that the GPS monitoring itself was the cause of any reduction in recidivism.
Is GPS Monitoring a problem? Feliz argues that because the attachment of a device to the body is a search, the state must show the search to be lawful, which requires weighing the intrusion against the government interests it promotes. The Supreme Court has recognized that GPS monitoring may be evaluated under the totality of the circumstances of its use. Massachusetts’ constitution preclude the use of blanket threats of warrantless searches in probation. If the threat of blanket searches is not permissible, it follows that the actuality of blanket searches cannot survive constitutional scrutiny.
Diminished privacy is not extinguished privacy. Universal GPS monitoring without considering individual needs cannot be said to contribute to rehabilitation, Feliz asserts. Even if privacy interests are reduced on probation, they are not extinguished, even in the face of registration requirements. The GPS systems compromises different interests: the bodily integrity and location information of a person.
The Social Freight of the Symbol. Multiple failures of GPS devices not only impair the integrity of the wearer’s person, they also function as modern scarlet letters, enhancing stigma.
The Durable Information Warehouse. The severity of the state’s creation of a repository of location information, extending to the home, cannot be sidestepped by asserting that the actual use of the information will not be as broad. Feliz asserts that this is information gathering is particularly where the potential to access the location information endures, permitting the state to “time travel” through records, a circumstance raising the concerns of the Supreme Court in Carpenter v. United States, No. 16-402 (June 22, 2018).
Warrants Issue Without Judicial Review. Feliz observes that the warrants that may issue where GPS monitoring indicates require no judicial intervention. They may be issued on a probation officer’s say so, further eroding any remaining protections of a probationer’s interests.
A Measure Must be as Reasonable as it is Rational. That a measure may be rational does not make it reasonable, particularly as due process and search analyses are not the same. Rational basis review proceeds from presumptive constitutionality, where warrantless searches proceed from presumptive unconstitutionality. The state must prove the need for such searches. Judicial evaluation of searches need not defer to the legislature.
Of Course Children Must be Protected: Will Universal GPS Montoring Accomplish this Goal? While the protection of children is a state interest of the highest order, the state has no evidence indicating that universal monitoring of non-contact offenders, without individual assessments of risk, serves that end. Feliz’ monitor is incapable of triggering an alert if Feliz enters an area where an offense might occur. Moreover, special needs, such as avoiding drunk driving fatalities, that might justify heightened intrusiveness, are not present.
The State Has A Different Perspective
The State’s Interest in Inhibiting Crime. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts submits that sex offenders have limited privacy interests and that GPS monitoring is reasonable and supports the state’s goal of protecting children.
The GPS Information Gathered Effectively Serves the State’s Goal. The Commonwealth quotes extensively from the trial judge who observed that while it is true that the GPS system could not issue an alert if Feliz entered a prohibited school zone, information could be gleaned after the fact to determine whether he had been near the site of a crime. The trial court noted that recidivism among sex offenders is lower than that of other criminals, and may be lower still for internet offenders. If antisocial traits are present, however, the potential to commit a contact offense is greater. Moreover, the attraction to children present in child pornography offenders would logically indicate a greater likelihood of a contact offense.
What Little Is Known. Empirical evidence is not extensive, but some studies indicate that GPS monitoring inhibits recidivism. The very knowledge that data is being gathered may be inhibiting, one expert has observed. Moreover, because internet addresses include location information, the correlation of internet addresses with GPS location information may promote deterrence.
Searches and Suspicions and Diminished Privacy Expectations. The Commonwealth distinguishes the cases relied on by Feliz by noting that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has permitted searches of probationers’ homes based on reasonable suspicion rather than probable cause. The Fourth Amendment protection accorded the home exceeds that attaching to location, which is low to virtually non-extant for probationers on parole.
An Indelicate Balance. The intrusion upon an offender’s person is minor when compared to the gravity of sex offenses against children. Offenders’ expectations of privacy are not the same as those who have not committed crimes. The very fact of being on probation limits privacy expectations in location information.
Rehabilitation is Fostered by Universal Electronic Monitoring. GPS monitoring can be seen as integral to rehabilitative goals. The need for child safety makes application of the special needs doctrine apt, for the search involved in GPS monitoring is specific. The inhibitory impact of an offender’s’ knowledge that information is being monitored serves the rehabilitative goal of impeding re-offending. This purpose is not diminished because information is retained: the potential for confirmation evidence serves the public interest in protection from sex offenders.
Daily Life Goes On, with Minimal Inconveniences. The severity of any invasion of a probationer’s privacy through GPS is overstated: cleanliness and other daily activities may be easily accomplished.
To aid the Supreme Judicial Court in its review, the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have jointly submitted an amicus brief urging the court to require individualized assessments in connection with applying or waiving GPS monitoring. The Commonwealth’s Attorney General, on behalf of the state’s probation services, has submitted an amicus brief which provides the technical details and practices involved in GPS monitoring.
Oral Argument Webcast: