Court strikes down lifetime electronic monitoring of sex offenders

Chief Justice Harold Melton, who wrote the unanimous opinion.

Chief Justice Harold Melton, who wrote the unanimous opinion.

The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday struck down a law requiring dangerous sexual predators who have completed their sentences to wear electronic monitors for the rest of their lives.

The requirement violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches, Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote for a unanimous court.

If a dangerous sexual predator were still on probation, the outcome could be different, the court said. That’s because such an offender who is still under a criminal sentence has a diminished expectation of privacy.

But offenders who have served all their time in prison and completed their probation should not have to attach an electronic monitoring device on their bodies so law enforcement can look for evidence of a crime against them without a warrant, the court said.

Collecting information about an individual 24 hours a day and seven days a week “constitutes a significant intrusion upon the privacy of the individual being monitored,” Melton wrote. It is “patently unreasonable,” the chief justice added.

Jason Rydberg, who teaches criminology and justice studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said more than 30 states allow for GPS tracking of sex offenders. “But what’s rare is for it to be applied on offenders for life,” he said.

As to whether it’s an effective deterrent, the results are mixed, said Rydberg, who has researched the supervision of sex offenders by electronic monitoring. “The rates of those re-offending are similar if they’re on GPS tracking or not,” he said.

The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Joseph Park, who was convicted in 2003 in Douglas County of child molestation and sexual exploitation of a minor. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Shortly before Park's release from incarceration, the Sex Offender Registration Review Board conducted a risk assessment to determine how likely it was that Park would engage in another crime against a minor or commit another dangerous sexual offense. The board put Park in its highest-risk category — a "sexually dangerous predator." 

The Sex Offender Registry Review Board has classified about 983 sex offenders at such a high-risk category, executive director Tracy Alvord said. That’s 9 percent of all sex offenders classified in Georgia.

When Park received such a classification, it meant he had to wear an electronic monitor linked to a GPS system for the rest of his life. But he can now remove it because of the court’s ruling.

His, lawyer, Mark Yurachek, said he was pleased with the outcome.

“We believed that even if this statute was passed with the best of intentions by the Legislature, it was a gross intrusion on the rights of a man who had already admitted his responsibility for a crime and served out his sentence without incident,” he said. “We very much appreciate the Supreme Court’s ability to separate itself from the emotions of the issue and render a judgment which merely applied the Constitution to the statute.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Keith Blackwell agreed with the result but noted the Legislature could still address the issue.

“Nothing in our decision prevents the General Assembly from authorizing life sentences for the worst sexual offenders, and nothing in our decision prevents the General Assembly from requiring a sentencing court in the worst cases to require GPS monitoring as a condition of permitting a sexual offender to serve part of a life sentence on probation,” Blackwell wrote.

State Rep. Chuck Efstration, who chairs the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, said he expects the Legislature to respond to Blackwell's concurrence.

“I certainly think that the General Assembly should consider changing the law to ensure this monitoring can be legally enforced,” the Republican from Dacula said. He added that he didn’t know whether there was enough time left to accomplish that this current legislative session.