The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 22, 2014

GPS seen as weapon against domestic assaults

Rep. Clark Johnson authors bill in House

By Dan Linehan
dlinehan@mankatofreepress.com

---- — ST. PAUL — Unearned as it seems, Jamie Erickson has some guilt about the murder of Josselyn Bishop.

At that time in her life, Josselyn’s friends shared a goal — keeping her away from her former boyfriend, Damone Christopher Williams-Tillman.

To that end, Erickson helped Bishop move into an apartment he managed.

On the day she was killed, July 8, 2011, Erickson barely missed Williams-Tillman picking Bishop up in his car. She had consented to the car ride, apparently willing to talk one last time.

In the years since, Erickson has been talking about Bishop’s death as a case study in domestic violence. And he’s been thinking — if technology keeps drunken drivers honest, why can’t it separate abusers from victims?

In 2012, Ramsey County started a pilot project to attach ankle bracelets to accused abusers. Though GPS tracking has been used in domestic violence cases before, the Ramsey County program goes further by allowing the victim to carry a device, as well. If a threshold is crossed — either three or five miles in the Ramsey County program — the defendant is warned by text message and told to leave.

A key distinction from other GPS monitoring is that this system is real-time — police can respond in time to prevent another assault, instead of merely verifying someone’s location after-the-fact.

And while GPS tracking is sometimes ordered by a judge as a condition of probation, after a conviction, this effort uses the technology before trial, as a condition of release from jail.

Erickson, who now lives in Le Sueur, testified recently about a bill at the Legislature that would expand the program statewide. Its chief author in the House is Clark Johnson, a North Mankato Democrat. He’s been working on the bill since last summer, and its passage through three committees has helped assuage concerns on what he acknowledges is a sensitive issue.

“I think this bill is going to save lives,” Erickson said.

Pat McDermott, assistant Blue Earth County attorney, is also a supporter.

“It’s one more useful tool to use from a public safety standpoint,” he said.

Johnson’s House bill has passed through its relevant committees, but its Senate counterpart, sponsored by Woodbury Democrat Susan Kent, hasn’t progressed as far. The bill must pass at least one Senate committee by March 28 or risk being set aside until next year.

More than paper

The traditional method to keep defendants away from victims is a no-contact order from a judge. In many cases, including some in south-central Minnesota, it hasn’t been enough.

On Thursday, Jan. 13, 2010, Shawn Haugen was released from jail after posting bond on a $20,000 bail and being ordered, again, not to contact his victim, Ashley Sullivan. That Sunday morning, he killed Sullivan and her stepfather, Chet Gronewold, at their Lewisville home. He later killed himself.

The GPS proposal can’t prevent every assault, but it is aimed at giving law enforcement a chance to intervene. The threshold distance that triggers police notification is measured in miles, not feet, to give police time to protect the victim.

The bill allows courts around the state to set different thresholds. In sparsely-populated northern Minnesota, it might be set higher. If both victim and accused worked in, say, Mankato, the threshold may have to be lowered or else the GPS not used at all.

The bill requires that the GPS monitoring be in real-time, meaning that it’s monitored at all times and not simply reviewed at certain intervals. It also requires the victims give their consent before the program is used.

Erickson said the tracking has other benefits, including that it helps victims and their families feel more secure.

The GPS tracking can protect defendants from false accusations, as well. That happened once in the Ramsey County pilot, when a victim falsely accused a defendant of violating a no-contact order.

He acknowledges there have been concerns about it, including cost and the possibility of a false sense of security. And he concedes it’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternatives.

“It’s more than a piece of paper,” Erickson said.

How it works

On Nov. 1, 2012, Ramsey County began screening every defendant charged with a felony domestic violence crime, said Mary Pat Maher, executive director of Project Remand, a nonprofit that contracts with the county to provide pre-trial services.

The courts there have used the GPS sparingly. Over the first year, 615 people were screened for possible inclusion in the program. It was generally used for medium-risk offenders — those who might otherwise have been in jail but were not considered at high-risk.

Of the 170 people who were eligible, only 19 participated. Like the victims, the defendants must consent to the program. Many do because it’s the only alternative to more jail time that doesn’t involve bail they can’t pay.

As of Thursday, 28 defendants have been released on GPS tracking, including 16 who have successfully completed the program and seven who failed. Only two defendants violated their no-contact orders, and it appears that the victim consented to the contact in both cases.

There really hasn’t been enough data to make a final judgment, but the re-conviction rate of 11 percent is lower than other, similar groups of offenders who aren't on GPS monitoring.

Who pays?

Scott Cutcher, the chief public defender in the 5th Judicial District, is concerned that his defendants will have to pay $11 a day to participate, and face “another pressure to plead to something they shouldn’t plea to.”

“The fees just drive me crazy,” he said.

Sometimes, when a client has a 50-50 case, the extra costs can be the tipping point that persuades them to plead guilty, he said.

McDermott, the prosecutor, said judges sometimes allow these fees to be included in any fines levied along with conviction.

Cutcher was also concerned about defendants inadvertently triggering the threshold, especially in smaller cities like Mankato.

And given defendants’ presumption of innocence, is it fair to violate their privacy and right to free movement without a trial?

Erickson noted that the program is voluntary for defendants.

McDermott said once the justice system has to weigh public safety against individual rights, defendants will lose some of their constitutional protections.