Where no WAN has gone before

Satellite tracking of sexual offenders is becoming law enforcement's rising star.


Simply registering sex offenders is inadequate. There is a growing and disturbing trend in which sex offenders evade Megan's Law community notification systems simply by moving and not reporting their new address. New Jersey authorities recently reported they don't know the whereabouts of approximately 300 New Jersey registered sex offenders. This was one of the principal reasons New Jersey is now in the midst of a two-year pilot program designed to monitor the state's most dangerous sexual predators with the aid of satellite tracking. The program will ultimately include more than 200 of the most dangerous sex offenders.

Some states, such as New York, are attempting to model their laws after Florida, which has the toughest child-sex law in the nation. Florida imposes harsher penalties on child molesters and requires many of those released from prison to wear satellite tracking devices for the rest of their lives.

Outta sight

GPS tracking technology has found its way offshore as well. In 2004, the British Home Office established three pilot programs to examine the efficacy of satellite tracking of offenders.

Under legislation that became law in September 2004, magistrates in local courts now can sentence offenders to a new community order — an Exclusion Order — and require them to wear an electronic monitoring device which can be tracked by GPS. Offenders also can be required to wear the device as a condition of their release from prison.

Many UK offenders are already subject to electronic monitoring requirements, whether they have been sentenced to a curfew order or released from prison on Home Detention Curfew. A device or "tag" ensures offenders must submit to curfew restrictions by remaining within the property at which their monitoring equipment has been installed.

"Satellite tracking is an additional safeguard as it will provide information on an offender's whereabouts, wherever they are, day or night," says Assistant Chief Officer Nigel Byford of West Midlands Probation Area. "It also will allow for the electronic enforcement of exclusion zones, areas the offender is not allowed to enter at any time."

The British pilots were designed to evaluate how tracking can best be deployed and what sorts of offenders are best suited for tracking.

"The tests also will give us the opportunity to further develop fast and effective responses to incidents involving high-risk offenders," Byford says.

On the right track

Satellite tracking comes with several key benefits, not the least of which is the deterrent it provides against repeat offending. It also offers a higher level of protection to the public by ensuring a subject does not enter prescribed areas such as an elementary school or victim's neighborhood without enforcement agencies being notified immediately. Law enforcement and probation agencies have near real-time intelligence about a subject's movements, allowing them to intervene rapidly if restrictions are violated.

GPS tracking systems also work in favor of offenders, assisting rehabilitation by ensuring the subject's family life and work can continue with minimal disruption. Effective surveillance is gained without restricting movement to a crippling degree.

Privacy rights don't seem to be a big issue with satellite tracking technology, even though some critics say it raises the specter of an Orwellian future.

"The law is simple — when a person is placed on probation or parole, the courts have a right to place reasonable restrictions, limits and conditions on that person's freedom," says Clifford Fishman, professor of law at the Catholic University of America.

Fishman says that while he would not want to see every person on probation or parole required to wear one of these things or have to be monitored by these devices, in appropriate cases it is perfectly proper.

Kim Colwell, a partner at Meyers Nave in Oakland, California, says the privacy issue depends on what crime the person is convicted of and what the terms of his/her probation or sentencing is.

"For example, if you have a sex offender who is required to stay away from schools and adult book stores, then monitoring to make sure he/she doesn't go near these 'forbidden' areas seems justified," she says. "On the other hand, if someone was convicted of check fraud, tracking and intrusion into where they go seems more problematic."

Track record

Still, satellite tracking has spun off a number of other liabilities. Signal loss is one problem. GPS signals remain vulnerable to natural and man-made obstacles, such as canyons, buildings or some atmospheric conditions. And, since all GPS units on the market rely on cellular telephone communications to relay GPS positioning to the agency, many locations remain where cell service is interrupted or unavailable.

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