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SJC orders new limits on GPS tracking of pretrial defendants

A GPS locater is worn on the ankle.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press/file

The state’s high court imposed new limits on the use of GPS bracelets for defendants awaiting trial and now requires prosecutors to detail why they think the courts need to know the precise location of such defendants.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s unanimous ruling came in the case of Eric Norman, who was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet imposed by a judge in a Boston court in July 2015 when he was charged with conducting a home invasion in Medford in August 2015.

Norman’s arrest was based almost exclusively on GPS data obtained from the state Probation Department computers showing when he arrived at the Medford address, how long he was at the address, when he departed from the alleged crime scene, and how he then went to Everett, where police later found incriminating evidence, the SJC said.


Norman was indicted on numerous charges including armed home invasion. He later pleaded not guilty in Middlesex Superior Court.

The SJC on Tuesday threw out all of the GPS-related evidence. Justice Frank Gaziano, writing for the court, said Norman’s state constitutional privacy rights were violated when he had to agree to wear the GPS tracker in order to be released on bail. GPS tracking was ordered under the state’s bail law, but that law is only aimed at assuring a person keeps court dates, the SJC said.

Requiring Norman — who had not been convicted of the earlier charge — to wear a government-controlled electronic device that tracked his location and stored that information in a government computer ran afoul of his privacy rights, the SJC said.

“There is no indication on this record that GPS monitoring would have increased the likelihood of the defendant returning to court,” Gaziano wrote. “Although the general specter of government tracking could provide an additional incentive to appear in court on specified dates, the causal link in this case is too attenuated and speculative to justify GPS monitoring.”


If prosecutors believe someone poses a public safety risk, they can seek to have them held without bail under the state’s separate dangerousness law, the SJC said.

The SJC also noted GPS tracking devices often lose connectivity to the Probation Department, forcing the person to move from spot to spot to reconnect or to bolt from work to make the connection to avoid having an arrest warrant issued.

"Despite an individual’s best efforts to comply with the strictures of GPS monitoring, connectivity issues can lead to the issuance of arrest warrants, thereby subjecting the individual to the indignity and dangers of an arrest,'' Gaziano wrote.

The ruling in the Norman case follows a decision from last year in which the SJC approved using GPS tracking devices for people who had been convicted of a crime. The court said such people’s privacy rights were reduced because of their convictions.

John R. Ellement can be reached at Follow him @JREbosglobe.