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Tennessee GPS Monitoring of Sex Offenders Upheld

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that Tennessee’s Sex Offender Registration and Monitoring acts do not violate the ex post facto prohibition of the U.S. Constitution. In doing so, the appellate court determined that tracking via a global positioning system (GPS) does not amount to punishment. One judge dissented, however, calling the GPS device a modern day “scarlet letter.”
John Doe pleaded guilty to Tennessee sex offenses. Following his convictions, in 2004 the Tennessee legislature enacted a lifetime sex offender registration law and a sex offender monitoring law which require “a convicted sex offender” to submit to “a satellite-based monitoring program for the duration of his probation.” Pursuant to those laws, Doe has worn a GPS device at all times since September 2005.
Doe challenged the 2004 Tennessee sex offender laws in federal court, alleging that they violated ex post facto prohibitions, his right against self incrimination, his right to procedural due process and his right to privacy. The government moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim. Doe opposed the motion only with respect to the ex post facto claims. He also attempted to raise a new claim in his response that was not alleged in his complaint, arguing that the laws violated his plea agreement.
The district court dismissed the complaint, concluding “that Doe’s ex post facto claims were meritless, the government had not breached the plea agreement, and Doe had abandoned his other claims.” On appeal, the Sixth Circuit agreed that Doe abandoned all but his ex post facto claims.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court “that the Tennessee Legislature’s purpose in enacting the challenged provisions of the Acts was to create a civil, nonpunitive regime.” It then examined “the practical effect of the challenged provisions of the Acts.”
The Sixth Circuit concluded that the “Act’s registration, reporting, and surveillance components are not a type ... traditionally considered as punishment, and the district court further correctly found that they do not constitute an affirmative disability or restraint in light of the Legislature’s intent. The Registration and Monitoring Acts do not increase the length of incarceration for covered sex offenders, nor do they prevent them from changing jobs or residences or traveling to the extent otherwise permitted by their conditions of parole or probation.”
The majority rejected the characterization of “the wearing of the GPS monitoring system as ‘a catalyst for public ridicule’ akin to traditional forms of community shaming or humiliation.... The device that Doe must wear is relatively unobtrusive, measuring only 6 inches by 3.25 inches by 1.75 inches and weighing less than a pound. In its size, shape and placement (hooked to a belt), it appears very similar to a walkie-talkie or other nondescript electronic device.”
The majority could not “agree that the device’s appearance would suggest to the casual observer that the wearer is a criminal, let alone a sex offender. The monitoring system could easily be viewed as a two-way communication device, a personal organizer, a medical apparatus, or as a monitoring system for employees entrusted with company property, such as delivery drivers or couriers.”
One appellate judge “vigorously” dissented, however, finding that the GPS device is a modern day “scarlet letter” that constitutes punishment and is excessive. See: Doe v. Bredesen, 507 F.3d 998 (6th Cir. 2007), rehearing denied, cert denied.

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Related legal case

Doe v. Bredesen