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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: GPS Monitoring Unreasonable When It Doesn’t Further Any Governmental Interest

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that imposition of GPS monitoring as a condition of bail was an unreasonable search because the monitoring did not further any legitimate governmental interest.

In July 2015, Eric Norman was charged in Boston Municipal Court with possession of a Class B substance with intent to distribute. Two of the conditions of his pretrial release were that he was to stay out of Boston, and he was ordered to wear a GPS monitoring device. He signed a form consenting to the release to the government of coordinates and other data related to his physical location and that he understood if he violated the terms of his release he could be jailed.

Then in August 2015, a home invasion and robbery occurred at a residence in Medford. Without any information connecting Norman to the crime, police asked the probation office to check its electronic monitoring (“ELMO”) records to determine if anyone under GPS supervision was present at the crime. The police obtained neither a warrant nor a court order for the GPS location data. The stored data from ELMO identified Norman as being present when the crime was committed and that he went to a location in Everett shortly before and after the crime.

Police executed a search warrant at the Everett address and recovered inculpatory evidence against Norman. Police arrested Norman on charges that included armed robbery while masked.

Norman moved to suppress the GPS location data and its fruits, arguing that police acquisition of the data violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and under art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

The judge granted the motion, finding that Norman had consented to the use of the GPS monitoring data only for enforcing the conditions of his release and not for general law enforcement purposes. The Commonwealth appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court observed “a search in the constitutional sense occurs when the government’s conduct intrudes on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.” Commonwealth v. Augustine, 4 N.E.3d 846 (Mass. 2014). Even though probationers have a diminished expectation of privacy, GPS monitoring of a probationer is a search. Commonwealth v. Johnson, 119 N.E.3d 669 (Mass. 2019). A pretrial detainee has a greater expectation of privacy than does a probationer. Commonwealth v. Silva, 31 N.E.3d 1092 (Mass. 2015). Thus, the Court explained that GPS monitoring as a condition of Norman’s pretrial release was a search.

The Fourth Amendment and art. 14 prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 37 N.E.3d 611 (Mass. 2015). The Court determines the reasonableness of a search by “balanc[ing] the intrusiveness of the police activities at issue against any legitimate governmental interests that these activities serve.” Id. When a judge orders GPS tracking, it is a highly intrusive “‘modern-day scarlet letter’ that 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., 985 N.E.2d 1181 (Mass. 2013).

The municipal court judge imposed GPS monitoring as a condition of pretrial release or “bail.” But judges do not have inherent authority to impose pretrial conditions of release. The conditions of release must be permissible under G.L. c. 276, § 58, the applicable bail statute. And the purpose and goal of the statute is to permit conditions of release that will ensure a defendant appears in court.

Since imposition of GPS monitoring did nothing to ensure Norman would appear in court, it did not serve the purposes of the statutory scheme, the Court concluded. That is, the intrusive governmental activity did not further any legitimate governmental interests. Consequently, the search was unreasonable.

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Norman



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