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Bill would use GPS to protect crime victims

Massachusetts lieutenant governor pushes for GPS technology to protect victims of domestic violence, gang-related offenses.

Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey has filed legislation calling for the use of global-positioning system technology to protect domestic-violence victims from their abusers.

The law would also shield witnesses of gang-related crimes from potential intimidation.

Healey's office claims that the bill, filed Wednesday, is the first piece of legislation to promote statewide use of GPS to protect abuse victims. Should it pass, Massachusetts would require individuals who violate existing restraining orders to wear a GPS monitoring device as a condition of their probation. The GPS technology would be used to alert victims and law enforcement officials when an offender enters certain restricted areas, including a victim's home or workplace, or a child's school.

GPS technology works by listening for radio signals from satellites, then fixing a device's location by calculating how long the signals take to arrive. The result of that calculation provides a highly accurate estimation of latitude and longitude.

When a convicted abuser enters one of the so-called "exclusion zones" set by the court, law enforcement officials would be informed, the person's probation would be revoked and they would be fined or re-incarcerated. Under Massachusetts law, people who violate the conditions of their restraining orders are also punishable by fines up to $5,000 and a prison sentence of more than two years.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts have already proposed a law that would require the state's highest risk, or Level 3, sex offenders to wear ankle bracelets equipped with GPS technology. The devices would be used to notify law enforcement when someone wearing one of the bracelets enters areas the courts have deemed off-limits.

Healey, a Republican, highlighted the fact that violent abusers often scare their victims into hiding, even when those abusers have restraining orders against them. A Healey aide said the lieutenant governor first became familiar with the problem while working as a researcher for the U.S. Department of Justice, and said the politician feels technology could go a long way toward helping protect abuse victims.

"To break free from horrific relationships, victims of domestic violence and their families should not be forced to abandon their lives," Healey said in a statement.

A second element of the bill proposes a GPS initiative meant to crack down on gang-related criminals by helping prosecutors protect key witnesses from potential intimidation. The legislation calls for the use of GPS devices on defendants who have previously violated restraining orders against potential witnesses as a condition of their pretrial release.

If the defendant enters an exclusion zone, the state will revoke that person's eligibility for bail or pretrial release.

"Justice hangs in the balance unless critical witnesses can testify without the fear of retaliation," Healey said. "We are sending a clear message to those who attempt to violate the law: Justice will prevail."

The utilization of GPS is taking a more prominent role in law enforcement, and has found favor in the courts for tracking criminals, even without their knowledge. In January, a federal judge in New York ruled that police did not need court authorization to track one suspected criminal via satellite using GPS transmitters hidden in his car. The ruling was based on the judge's belief that the suspect could not expect privacy of his whereabouts when operating his vehicle on a public roadway.

The Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union could not immediately be reached for comment on the legislation.