O.C. to Track Sex Offenders Via Satellite
Orange County is taking what some civil libertarians consider troubling steps to keep tabs on sex offenders, giving them periodic lie detector tests and, starting next year, requiring some to wear wristbands linked to satellite tracking systems.
The county will become the first in the state, and one of only a dozen or so nationwide to track sex offenders with global positioning satellites, which allow officials to pinpoint offenders’ locations around the clock.
Authorities said the tracking and lie detector tests represent powerful deterrents for offenders and could also tip off police to crimes the probationers might commit.
“It is a controversial issue for us. But our primary concern is the protection of the community,” said Bill Daniel, director of special operations for the Orange County Probation Department.
“It goes against our conscience to just warehouse someone for three years as a sex offender and provide them minimum supervision and send them out to the community without the help they need to prevent them from doing this again,” Daniel said.
But critics say that probationers--even those convicted of sexual molestation--have the right to visit the market or post office without the government monitoring their every move.
“That sounds awfully Big Brotherish to me, to track people wherever they go and whatever they do,” said Orange County Deputy Public Defender James Merwin.
The use of global positioning satellites to track probationers and parolees has not triggered any legal challenges the ACLU was aware of, but it has not been without controversy. Authorities in Texas came under attack this year when it was learned that satellite monitoring had failed to prevent the sexual molestation of a 6-year-old boy allegedly by a parolee wearing a tracking bracelet.
Both misdemeanor and felony sex offenders end up under Probation Department supervision. There are about 400 convicted sex offenders on probation or parole in Orange County. By taking polygraph tests, offenders are more likely to tell the truth during counseling sessions and therefore can more easily confront and deal with their problems, Daniel said.
“To be successful treating sex offenders, we need them to be completely honest,” he said.
Those whom the Probation Department consider the most likely to commit more sex crimes, perhaps only a dozen or so, will end up wearing wristbands equipped with electronic transmitters. If one of these sex offenders nears a school or other location off-limits to him under state law, probation officers could swoop in and detain him, Daniel said.
Defense attorneys are not the only ones with doubts about the tracking system. Officials at the Los Angeles County Probation Department said they also have problems with the idea and have no plans to implement a similar program.
“I’m not a fan of that,” said David Davies, chief of adult field services for the department. “I’m a firm believer if you need to put somebody on GPS, that person doesn’t need to be on the street. I’d really question why you’d use something like that.”
Los Angeles, however, has expressed interest in the polygraph program Orange County has instituted but is waiting to see what kind of reception it receives in the courtroom.
Orange and San Diego counties are the only major jurisdictions in the state to use random lie detector tests on sex offenders.
And in the year since it began, some judges have raised warning flags.
In a few cases where the policy was challenged, judges have told the Probation Department it can conduct lie detector tests only with a court order.
One issue that concerns defense lawyers is that some offenders might feel forced to confess past crimes, in violation of their protections under the 5th Amendment.
Critics also note that the polygraph has been proved unreliable and tests are inadmissible in California courts.
Offenders also object to the questions that officials ask during lie detector tests.
Del Dalton, a former doctor from Laguna Beach serving three years’ probation after his conviction for fondling female patients, said his polygraph sessions have dealt with questions that have nothing to do with his crime.
In one session, officials asked about his family, and Dalton told them he spanked his son. Probation officials then contacted social workers, who pulled Dalton’s son out of school to inspect him for bruises, according to court records. No bruises were found.
Months later, he was questioned about boxes of prescription medication officials found at his home. The drugs are part of a separate criminal investigation of Dalton. Dalton’s attorney argues that those questions were inappropriate because Dalton did not have counsel present.
Psychologist Wesley Maram, who treats sex offenders referred by the Orange County Probation Department, said such probing questions are invaluable tools. He has a full-time polygraph expert on staff.
“Providing treatment without it, it’s like providing treatment in the blind,” he said.
Victims’ rights groups support both the lie detector testing and the tracking, calling them novel ways to monitor the behavior of sex offenders.
“The idea they’re going to stop raping and molesting after they’re released, that doesn’t happen,” said Marybeth Carter, executive director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.