Grady v. North Carolina: What Does It Mean For States Who Monitor Convicted Sex Offenders?

On Monday, March 30, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment.  The case, Torrey Dale Grady v. North Carolina, was brought by petitioner, Grady, who was convicted of two sexual offenses, one in 1997 and one in 2006.  After serving his sentence, the state attempted to subject him to a satellite-based monitoring (SBM) system as authorized by North Carolina law.  This monitoring program would track Grady’s location at all times and report violations of any schedule or location requirements.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  When the Constitution was first written, it was much easier to determine when a search occurred and when one did not.  If there was a government official searching through one’s things or patting down one’s clothes, it seems more obvious that there was a search occurring.  However, with the advancement of technology, especially global positioning system (GPS) technology, courts are having to handle more cases where determining whether a search occurred is more ambiguous.

A landmark case concerning whether GPS tracking is considered a search is United States v. Jones.  In this case, a GPS tracking device was attached to petitioner’s car without a valid warrant for the purposes of discovering information to help the government investigate petitioner’s drug trafficking activities.  The Court held that the installation of a GPS tracking device onto petitioner’s car for the purpose of obtaining information was clearly a search under the Fourth Amendment.

Given the Court’s emphasis on the attachment of a GPS tracking device on an individual’s car being a search because of the intrusion onto that individual’s property, it is unsurprising that the Court ruled the way it did in Grady.  In Jones, the Court stated that protection of property from unreasonable searches is one of the key aspects of the Fourth Amendment. Otherwise, “the phrase ‘in their persons, houses, papers, and effects’ would have been superfluous.”  An analogous argument can be made in Grady.  The Fourth Amendment certainly meant to protect persons from unreasonable searches.  Otherwise, the first part of the Fourth Amendment, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons,” would have no meaning.  If monitoring an individual’s whereabouts by attaching a GPS device to his or her car is considered a search, it follows that monitoring an individual’s whereabouts by attaching a GPS device to his or her body would also be considered a search.

Although the Court ruled in Grady that attaching a SBM system onto a person’s body was considered a search, it explicitly stated that it was not making a ruling about whether the entire system of monitoring sex offenders was unconstitutional.  Because the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches, the state could still make an argument that monitoring sex offenders’ locations constitutes a reasonable search.  The purpose of ordering a recidivist sex offender to wear a SBM system is to protect its citizens and the state has an interest in protecting human life.  However, even in enacting policies that are intended to protect the community, there are limitations on how far the state can intrude into one person’s life.

It will be interesting to see whether North Carolina will be able to justify its lifetime, continuous search of Grady on remand.  If not, over forty states that have statutes authorizing GPS monitoring of sex offenders may see increased challenges to their statutes and may be required to redraft or repeal their laws.