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Data from man's ankle bracelet led police to charge him as an armed home invader, but court says that was unconstitutional

In 2015, a man wearing a GPS device as a condition of bail on a Boston drug charge was arrested for an armed home invasion in Medford after police there asked the operators of a state GPS database if anybody in it had a GPS pinged from the location of the home invasion and his info showed up.

But the Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that prosecutors can't use that data because the police didn't have probable cause to query the database, in a decision that also sets limits on the ability of judges to order people awaiting trial to wear the devices.

In July, 2015, Eric Norman was arraigned as a repeat cocaine dealer in Boston Municipal Court. As a condition of his bail, the judge in the case ordered him to stay out of Boston - except for court appearances - and ordered him to wear an ankle bracelet so that officials could make sure he wasn't violating that order.

The next month, Medford Police, investigating an armed home invasion contacted the state probation service and asked it to check its GPS database to see if there were any pings from the time and location of the home invasion and Norman's data came up.

Big mistake, the state's highest court ruled today. That sort of query is legally a "search" and a search requires some minimal probable cause without a warrant. And in this case, police had no reason to believe Norman was involved, they didn't even know who he was at that point and so no probable cause to ask Probation to do a general query and see what popped up - and that could mean trouble for the rest of the Commonwealth's case, which included a witness ID that only came after police got back the results from the state database.

More generally, the court cast shade on the use of GPS devices as part of bail conditions. The court said that the point of bail is to ensure defendants return to court and that GPS devices don't do that. State law does grant exceptions in certain cases, such as domestic abuse, but Norman's drug charge was not one of the crimes covered by exceptions, and so it's unconstitutional to require people who have yet to be convicted of a crime to be burdened with what is essentially a form of punishment and a restriction for people who have.

When a judge orders GPS tracking, a "modern-day 'scarlet letter'" is physically tethered to the individual, reminding the public that the person has been charged with or convicted of a crime. Commonwealth v. Hanson H., 464 Mass. 807, 815-816 (2013), quoting Commonwealth v. Cory, 454 Mass. 559, 570 n.18 (2009). See Commonwealth v. Goodwin, 458 Mass. 11, 22 (2010) ("ankle bracelet . . . may . . . expos[e] the [individual] to persecution or ostracism"); Commonwealth v. Raposo, 453 Mass. 739, 740 (2009) (describing "ankle bracelet, which is permanently attached to the probationer").

If a GPS monitoring device loses connection with either the cellular network or the satellite network, or if the device's battery runs low, "alerts" from ELMO [the state office that monitors GPS signals] are issued. ... The individual may have to leave his or her location in search of a signal, or may be required to travel to a location where the device can be charged. ... These frequent interruptions can endanger an individual's livelihood. ... Lastly, GPS monitoring can place an especially great burden on homeless individuals. See Commonwealth v. Canadyan, 458 Mass. 574, 575, 578-579 (2010) (noting "undisputed evidence that homeless shelters" could not provide electrical outlets necessary to charge GPS units).

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Comments

A lot of crimes have been solved by searching ELMO for career criminals out of jail committing even more crimes. This would be one I would appeal further...

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Voting closed 28

This ruling is a disgrace. The GPS info is in the Public record of the Probation Dept. and access should be available to the police whenever asked. It's no different than the Masspike transponders or cameras in public areas. What BS.

We should be tired of these liberal judges looking to find ANY reason to unleash the criminal element on us.

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Voting closed 37

Or just copy and paste it.

Read the actual ruling before commenting. All fun and games until you are the one who has their rights breached by an overzealous "police are the solution to everything" society.

Shouldn't you be out there demanding that people be arrested for having COVID-19?

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Voting closed 11

If his bail condition had been, “wear a GPS bracelet and let us track your location,” you would have a point. But that wasn’t the bail condition; instead it was, “stay out of Boston and wear a GPS bracelet to verify that you are doing so,” which is quite different.

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Voting closed 10

All of them are tracked. I don’t think any of the brackets are “just to track” someone, they all basically have some parameter as to where someone can or can’t go (or curfews).

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Voting closed 5

Prosecutors could start asking for bail conditions that include, “GPS ankle bracelet with continuous reporting of your whereabouts to the police,” in which case using the location data in the way it was used here, would not run afoul of probable cause issues.

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Voting closed 8

Reading through the lines here, it seems like the court is telling everyone that GPS monitoring is only for a specific purpose (to alert probation if a violation occurs) and nothing more.

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Voting closed 5

This is a (state) Supreme Court ruling. There's no further appealing that.

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Voting closed 6

A request by police to query search a particular location time and date is nothing more than an aspect of the investigative process. A home invasion occurred. Police need to exercise due diligence and ask probation to do a crime correlation of the crime scene.
Bingo. They have a hit. An ankle wearing defendant in another case happens to be at the crime scene at the time of the crime.
Why is probable cause needed up to this point ? Probable cause is derived as a result of the officer doing his investigation and learning of the suspects identity thru the assistance of an investigative tool called GPS crime correlation. To not utilize this law enforcement tool is to be derelict in ones duty. How or why could an officer have needed or obtained probable cause BEFORE he asked for the Probation Department's assistance. The logic of the SJC in this instance is baffling. the police had no idea if or whose gps points were to appear due to the requested gps GPS query so how could they obtain the so called requisite probable cause to initiate such a request. These type of decisions may end up in the Supreme Court some day as this has been an issue all over the country as to the legality of accessing GPS points on Court ordered litigants.

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Voting closed 5

There are lots of ways people are "punished" before trial. Like arresting them, keeping them in jail until they post bail, denying bail entirely, or having an arrest on your CORI record.

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Voting closed 9

Only certain convictions and pleas.....

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Voting closed 17

Fortunately I'm not an expert in this stuff. But it looks like open cases (is that arrests with no conviction or exoneration yet?), dismissed cases, and cases dropped by a prosecutor are included in CORI reports.

And everything is always on the CORI. But some reports, like for landlords or non-school jobs, exclude certain types of information.

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Voting closed 5

I know that for a fact. And NP cases are definitely not on them.

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Voting closed 3

Ankle bracelets monitor statewide movements.
Live and learn. Depends on the judge.

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Voting closed 6

This person committed a robbery knowing that they had a GPS tracking device on. Unless they're a lawyer looking to test civil liberty law, that seems incredibly stupid. I suspect this isn't the last time they'll be caught.

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Voting closed 27

Even the shockingly stupid have constitutional rights.

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Voting closed 7

Adam, did you mean to say "had no reason to believe Norman was involved" in the 5th paragraph?

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Voting closed 13