Crime & Courts

Courtroom showdown: Is Richland County’s ankle monitoring legal?

GPS-equipped ankle bracelet
GPS-equipped ankle bracelet Courtesy: Offender Management Services

A Richland County electronic monitoring program that has allowed judges to let hundreds of criminal defendants out of jail while awaiting trial will come under fire on Thursday.

Opponents assert the program’s cost – each defendant must pay $259 per month for an GPS chip-equipped ankle bracelet – discriminates against poor defendants who have to stay in jail because they can’t afford to be in the program.

The program, called Electronic Monitoring Program, was started in 2014 in reaction to the 2013 slaying of Kelly Hunnewell, a Columbia baker, who left four children behind after she was shot to death during a nighttime armed robbery. Two of the three defendants in that case were out on bond but were not being monitored electronically. All three were eventually caught and convicted and given stiff sentences.

Electronic monitoring of defendants has been used in various forms around the nation for years.

In Richland County supporters say the program, which allows sophisticated electronic tracking of a defendant’s movements by a GPS chip in an ankle bracelet, is lawful and, moreover, has led to a drop in defendants committing crimes while out on bond. They also say that Offender Management Services, the private company that runs the program, has quality equipment and that its performance is not an issue in the upcoming court dispute.

“The program allows people to get back in the community and get back to work, but it allows us to monitor them and make sure they don’t violate their bond or break the law,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, a big backer of the program.

State Judge Clifton Newman, who has a reputation as a stern judge who likes lawyers to be prepared, will preside at Thursday’s hearing.

On one side will be the 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, whose deputy Dan Goldberg will argue the program is legal.

On the other is Fielding Pringle, chief Richland County public defender who oversees some two dozen attorneys who handle indigent cases. She initiated the complaint about the program and asked for Thursday’s hearing.

Both Pringle and Johnson declined comment for this story.

Pringle is asking the judge to declare Johnson’s entire program “null and void.” She also is asking that a requirement that two of her office’s clients get ankle bracelets be removed. The two clients, who are still in jail, are:

▪ DeAndre Moye, 21, who is charged with possession of a stolen motor vehicle and possession of a stolen weapon. He was arrested Nov. 14. Although bond was set at $20,000, he is unable to pay the ankle bracelet monitoring fees and remains in jail.

▪ Tajai Lewis, 19, who was arrested Jan. 30, 2015, and charged with attempted murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime, On May 6, 2015, a state judge set his bond at $50,000 but required an ankle bracelet, which he cannot afford. He remains in jail.

Pringle is asking the judge to remove the electronic monitoring condition from their bond. She also wants the judge to find the program unconstitutional because it allegedly discriminates against indigent defendants in a number of ways.

From 2014 to March 1 of this year, 418 defendants have been on the monitoring equipment in “cases from auto breakins and shoplifting to armed robberies and murders,” a brief in the case by Pringle said.

The program was created on June 9, 2014, under an administrative order signed that day by state Judge Robert Hood, who was serving as county administrative judge. Supporters cite that order as indisputable evidence of the program’s legality.

In Pringle’s briefing, she said the order “seems to have appeared out of thin air,” and that Hood, who was administrative law judge at the time, had no authority to create such a program.

Moreover, Pringle wrote, the order is unlawful because it doesn’t allow the judge who rules that electronic monitoring is appropriate to take into account a defendant’s ability to pay.

“There is no sliding scale and no middle ground upon which a judge may rely in order to make electronic monitoring affordable for an indigent defendant,” Pringle wrote.

In a signal that a long legal battle battle that ultimately winds up in federal courts might be in the offing, Pringle said that protections afforded to the poor by the U.S. Constitution have been violated.

“A person with wealth is able to participate in the electronic monitoring program and secure his release, whereas the indigent defendant is forced to languish in jail pending trial because he cannot afford the cost ...,” Pringle wrote.

At Thursday’s hearing, prosecutors are expected to show statistics that they say prove the chances of someone with a Richland County ankle bracelet being re-arrested while out of jail on bond are sharply lower than someone on bond without an ankle bracelet.

For example, in 2015, of 1,688 Richland County defendants let out of jail on bond without an ankle bracelet, 433 – or 25 percent – were re-arrested while out on bond.

But that same year, of the 511 defendants out of jail on bond and required to wear an ankle bracelet, only 16 – or 4 percent – were rearrested while out on bond.

Ankle bracelet

It is a one-piece device secured to the ankle with a GPS chip that records every place a defendant goes.

Cost is $259 per month.

It is lightweight and cannot easily be removed.

Authorities can track a person’s location on a minute-by-minute basis, according to court records.

How it works

Richland County authorities and the private company maintain a video monitoring room in the county courthouse.

A bank of large video screens displays on a real-time basis on maps of Richland County the locations of all defendants wearing ankle bracelets. If a defendant enters a GPS-drawn “exclusion zone” – an area where he is forbidden to go, such as a witness’s neighborhood – an alarm will sound in the monitoring room and law enforcement will be alerted.

Likewise, if a bank is robbed, monitors will show if anyone with an electronic ankle bracelet was in the area at the time of the robbery.

The system keeps in its memory where a defendant has been. If law officers want to see where a particular individual has been at any given time, they can display that person’s exact whereabouts on the video screen for the time period in question.

Offender Management Services, the private company Solicitor Dan Johnson has partnered with, has an office in Johnson’s office where it shares information about the defendants with prosecutors. This office is in addition to program’s video monitoring room.

Prosecutors say the program is effective because it gives them the unprecedented ability to know if a defendant has violated any conditions of being out on bond. However, public defender Fielding Pringle in a legal brief calls the program “extraordinarily invasive” because to get a bracelet, the defendant has to agree to unannounced searches of his home and vehicle.

Not all defendants are eligible for ankle monitoring. Some are judged too dangerous, or too much of a flight risk, to be let out of jail on bond while awaiting trial.