RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s constitutional for North Carolina to require people convicted of the most serious sex offenses to be monitored perpetually by satellite-linked bracelets, the state Supreme Court ruled on Friday.
But the majority opinion’s influence on sex offenders may be muted. A General Assembly law signed this month will soon reduce lifetime GPS monitoring of such “aggravated offenders” and others convicted of sex crimes subjected to such tracking to 10 years.
The decision came in the case of Donald Eugene Hilton, who went before a judge in Catawba County in 2018. Based on his 2007 convictions involving sex with children, the judge ordered him to enroll in lifetime satellite-based monitoring.
Hilton appealed, and a Court of Appeals panel last year ruled that such monitoring was reasonable only for the period of time in which Hilton was on post-release supervision, not after it ended.
In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court declared the lifetime monitoring for aggravated offenders — usually people convicted of the rape of an adult or of sexual intercourse with a child — constituted a reasonable search under the U.S. Constitution.
Sex offenders must wear the bracelet at all times. The bracelet must be charged daily for up to two hours.
Chief Justice Paul Newby, writing the majority opinion, said the monitoring program protects the public from sex-related crimes. Such monitoring can’t be instituted without a court hearing in which a defendant can present evidence, he wrote, and a defendant can ask for it to end starting one year after the offender completes his sentence.
The program “does not authorize state officials to indiscriminately search unidentified individuals for unspecified items and for an indefinite period of time without stated cause or constraint,” Newby wrote, adding that Hilton “has failed to demonstrate that the (monitoring) program is unconstitutional beyond reasonable doubt.”
Friday’s ruling followed a 2019 state Supreme Court ruling that found lifetime satellite-based tracking violates rights when imposed only because the person has been convicted of multiple sex offenses.
Associate Justice Anita Earls, who wrote the 2019 majority opinion, criticized the majority’s decision Friday as a “soon-to-be-irrelevant conclusion.”
The new law, which will take effect in December, will afford Hilton “the opportunity to seek and obtain an order reducing his required period of enrollment from life to 10 years” through a legal petition, Earls said in a dissenting opinion.
Regardless, Earls added, the lifetime monitoring constituted an unreasonable search and seizure upon Hilton, and state prosecutors failed to present evidence to support the “assertion that imposing lifetime (monitoring) deters sex offenders from committing future sex crimes.”
Justices Robin Hudson and Sam Ervin IV joined Earls in her opinion.
The new provisions for satellite-based monitoring were contained in a bipartisan police and criminal justice reform measure signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper three weeks ago.
The law says the provisions address constitutional issues described in the 2019 case. The law in part also describes the efficacy of satellite-based monitoring for lowering the chances that an offender will commit a new crime.