State v. Grady, ___ N.C. ___, 831 S.E.2d 542 (Aug. 16, 2019)

On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 817 S.E.2d 18 (2018), the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision finding satellite-based monitoring (SBM) to be an unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional search in the defendant’s case. The court modified the lower court decision to apply it not just to the defendant, but also to all sex offenders subject to mandatory lifetime SBM based solely on their status as recidivists who are no longer on probation, parole, or post-release supervision. In this case, the trial judge conducting the defendant’s SBM determination hearing (on remand from the Supreme Court of the United States, Grady v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 1368 (2015)), considered the State’s evidence of the defendant’s prior sex crimes, the defendant’s full criminal record, copies of G.S. 14-208.5 and -208.43, photographs of the equipment the State uses to administer the SBM program, and testimony from a probation supervisor on the operation of the SBM equipment and the nature of the program. The defendant presented statistical reports, Community Corrections policy governing SBM, and an excerpt of SBM training materials for probation staff. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the trial judge entered an order concluding that SBM was a reasonable search as applied to the defendant and that the statute is facially constitutional, and ordered the defendant to enroll in SBM for life.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals concluded that although the defendant’s expectation of privacy was appreciably diminished as a sex offender, the State failed to prove that SBM was a reasonable search as applied to him under the Fourth Amendment. The State appealed as of right.

The Supreme Court declined to address the facial constitutionality of North Carolina’s SBM program in its entirety, instead addressing the program as applied to the narrower category of recidivists to which the defendant belongs. The court rejected the State’s argument that SBM was valid as a special needs search, because the State never identified any special need beyond the normal need for law enforcement, and because the defendant was no longer on probation or parole.

The court also found SBM unconstitutional under a reasonableness analysis, concluding that, given the totality of the circumstances, SBM’s intrusion into the defendant’s Fourth Amendment interests outweighed its promotion of legitimate governmental interests. As to the nature of the privacy interest, the court deemed SBM to be uniquely intrusive—presenting even greater privacy concerns than the cell-site location information at issue in Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018). The court rejected the State’s arguments that felons generally and sex offenders in particular who have fully served their sentences have a diminished expectation of privacy. Regarding the character of the complained of intrusion, the court noted the absence of front-end discretion on the part of the judge who imposes SBM and the limited relief available on the back end through the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission, which has thus far declined all sixteen requests to terminate SBM filed under G.S. 14-208.43. Finally, as to the nature and purpose of the search, the court noted the State’s failure to provide evidence about how successfully the SBM program advances its stated purpose of protecting the public or any evidence regarding the recidivism rates of sex offenders. The court contrasted that lack of evidence with the copious evidence of student drug use the Supreme Court of the United States found critical in upholding random drug screening in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995). Balancing those factors, the court determined that the State did not meet its burden of establishing the reasonableness of SBM for recidivists who have completed their sentence. The court concluded by emphasizing the limited scope of its holding, reiterating that it does not apply to SBM enrollees in other categories (for example, those enrolled based on an aggravated offense), regardless of whether they also happen to be a recidivist, or to enrollees still on parole, post-release supervision, or probation.

Justice Newby dissented, joined by Justice Morgan, arguing that the State’s paramount interest in protecting children outweighed the intrusion into the defendant’s diminished Fourth Amendment privacy interests, and that the SBM program is thus constitutional, both facially and as applied to the defendant.