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GPS Monitoring of Criminal Defendants – Wonderful in Theory, Dangerous in Practice

Electronic GPS monitoring systems are routinely used in the modern criminal courtroom across Florida and the rest of the country. In theory, they accomplish two very important goals: (1) they allow probation and pre-trial officers to track the whereabouts of a defendant wearing the device at all times, and (2) they deter a defendant from leaving his or her pre-approved location at any time for fear of being caught.

However, what many people do not know is that inherent flaws in the functioning of these devices, along with human error by the officers administering them lead to many wrongful arrests and criminal defendants spending a significant amount of time in jail or prison due to no fault of their own.

Electronic monitoring with GPS tracking devices is actually a very complex process. The defendant being monitored is usually given three pieces of equipment that use a combination of satellite and cellular signals to communicate with each other to transmit information back to the probation officer. Works like a charm! Well, not exactly…

The problem is that the devices often malfunction due to weak signal, just like your cell phone, or satellite dish might. This is especially true in very rural areas, where weak cellular signal is common, or areas with tall buildings, which can block satellite signal.

Signal problems most commonly cause two types of GPS alerts that get transmitted to a probation officer. One is known as a “bracelet gone” alert, which in theory means that the defendant has travelled too far away from one of the three components of the monitoring system, often known as the XT device. The other is a “thrown point,” where the GPS data suddenly glitches as to the proper reading of the location of the defendant. Both alerts effectively tell the officer monitoring the defendant that he or she may not be at his or her approved location.

But, these equipment malfunctions are only part of the problem. Probation and pre-trial officers are supposed to receive training by the manufacturers of these devices in properly administering them. The primary company that manufactures the devices is 3M Company (yes, the same 3M that makes your Scotch Tape and Air Conditioning Filter, among countless other household products). Officers using 3M devices are supposed to verify all GPS alerts directly with 3M prior to submitting violation reports to judges to confirm the likelihood of the violation being real.

In practice, despite strong efforts by manufacturers like 3M, some probation and pre-trial officers do not attend regularly scheduled trainings in these procedures, or they fail to comply with them. They hastily submit violation reports to judges for GPS alerts that may not correlate with real GPS violations, without verifying them with manufacturers. Judges, who trust that these devices are working properly and that officers are doing their jobs properly, routinely sign these violation reports that regularly come across their desks.

In most cases, the signing of these reports leads to the issuance of warrants for the defendants, who are then arrested and held no pond pending resolution of the matters. Further, the standard of proof for pre-trial and probation violations is low, far from “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Therefore, it is usually an uphill battle for the criminal defense attorney fighting to get his client released from custody.

Certainly, many of the GPS violations that come across judges’ desks on a daily basis are real, and based on actual deviations by criminal defendants from their approved locations. However, it is important for all those who routinely use, or deal with these devices to understand their inherent flaws, and the tragic outcomes that they can cause in the criminal justice system. Further, it is extremely important for criminal defense attorneys to be on the lookout for these particular issues so that they are better prepared to defend against them, and hopefully get those who are wrongfully accused home to their families faster.

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