Massachusetts Sex Offenders Can’t Be Forced to Wear GPS Devices Unless They First Violate Probation: Supreme Judicial Court.

In a ruling bound to enrage victim’s rights advocates and conservative legal and political commentators, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday issued a decision restricting District and Superior Court judges’ ability to require that GPS monitoring bracelets be worn by convicted Massachusetts sex offenders, regardless of whether offenders have violated the conditions of their probation. While differing viewpoints can argue the constitutional validity of this decision, it is the underlying which gave rise to this ruling that is certain (understandably) to evoke a lot of visceral reaction about this ruling.

The facts of that case are unquestionably ugly and revolting, so let’s lay them out up front: One day twenty years ago, in 1990, a particularly loathsome individual by the name of Ralph Goodwin abducted and raped a 7 year-old boy. I said the details are revolting, and they are: Goodwin lured the young boy away from his parents while the family was attending an event at a Portuguese-American civic club in Lowell. He did this by enticing the boy in a game of hide-and-seek. According to prosecutors at his trial, Goodwin separated the boy from his parents and a friend and carried him outside the building, threatening to kill him if he called for help. He then took the boy to a secluded area underneath a nearby bridge and raped him. When Goodwin was done, he then took him to a house, where he sexually assaulted the boy again. Goodwin held the boy prisoner in the cellar of the house overnight, and raped him again the following morning, according to prosecutors. He then placed the injured and traumatized boy in a large cardboard box, deposited him on a street corner, and called a taxi to take the boy to his home.

Goodwin was convicted at trial, and then-Superior Court Judge Patti B. Saris, (who is now a federal judge,) sentenced Goodwin to two concurrent terms of 10 to 15 years in prison for two of the Massachusetts rape charges, and nine to 10 years concurrently for the kidnapping. She sentenced Goodwin 30 to 40 years for the third rape but suspended that sentence, but ordered that it be automatically imposed if he reoffended. Goodwin then spent the next 15 years as a guest of the Commonwealth in state prison. Prior to his scheduled release in 2005, he was civilly committed to Bridgewater State Hospital (basically the state prison for the insane and the sexually dangerous,) after a judicial determination that he was still sexually dangerous. In 2006, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law to require that all convicted sex offenders wear GPS monitoring devices. Fast forward to June 2009, when Goodwin was released after a jury concluded he was no longer dangerous. He was given several conditions of probation at his release. However, wearing a GPS monitoring device that would allow authorities to track his movements, and staying away from schoolyards, was not among the listed conditions of probation, because he was convicted prior to enactment of the 2006 law requiring all convicted sex offenders to wear the devices. This is key here.

Shortly after Goodwin’s June 2009 release, prosecutors asked a judge to add to his probation conditions, and order that Goodwin wear a GPS device, and also asked for additional probation orders that would restrict his movements (these requests were asked by prosecutors, in addition to the previous probation conditions that were imposed upon his release in 2009.) At a hearing on these additional requests, a Superior Court judge ruled against the prosecutors’ requests. It is extremely important to note that the judge did this, primarily due to the fact that the SJC had just issued a ruling the day before this judge’s ruling in favor of Goodwin, prohibiting judges from applying the 2006 GPS law retroactively. This is also key here.

Yesterday’s 4-3 SJC ruling, upholding the lower court judge’s refusal to add GPS monitoring to Goodwin’s prior probation conditions (as well as their refusal to prohibit Goodwin from going near playgrounds, schools, and libraries) seems, at first glance, illogical and ill-advised. But the SJC’s decision was based on two facts: 1) Their prior decision in 2009, preventing judges from applying the GPS law retroactively; and 2) The fact (stipulated to by both prosecutors Goodwin’s attorneys,) that Goodwin had not, at the time prosecutors moved to impose the additional GPS monitoring, violated any conditions of his June 2009 probation. (Note: In the interests of full disclosure, Goodwin did eventually the terms of his June 2009 probation, by failing to attend a mental health day treatment program, and as a result, was ordered by another judge to wear a GPS device, (though that judge did not restrict where him from going near schoolyards or playgrounds.)

Writing for the majority, Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote, “Here, the (trial) judge correctly found that there had been no material change in the defendant’s circumstances after the terms of (the June 2009) probation were initially imposed that would justify the proposed additional probation condition of GPS monitoring and exclusion zones.” This decision essentially reaffirms the 4-to-3 decision the high court issued in August 2009, ruling that the Legislature’s 2006 law requiring convicted sex offenders to wear GPS devices cannot be automatically applied retroactively to defendants who were convicted prior to the statute’s enactment. The majority said the devices were “punitive” rather than “remedial”, and that they create an unconstitutional burden on the individuals’ freedom.

The court’s ruling drew criticism from the District Attorney who sought the increased probation conditions on Goodwin, Middlesex County District Attorney Gerald T. Leone, Jr., as well as criticism from and victims’ rights advocates. Goodwin’s attorney, Jeannine Mercure, said the court’s ruling was a victory for civil liberties, and noted that the ruling had implications beyond solely GPS monitoring of sex offenders. Certainly, many people will disagree. Even though I practice as a Massachusetts sex offender attorney, I full understand why people would disagree with this argument.

These decisions aren’t easy. It’s argued that decisions like this are needed, to protect the constitutional rights of the larger population. The case is Commonwealth vs. Ralph W. Goodwin, Slip Opinion No. SJC-10647.