- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2017

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Wednesday signed into law a measure that will close a loophole that had allowed criminals to tamper with their GPS monitoring devices without facing additional punishment.

“This legislation is a strong step to remedy a critical shortcoming in our criminal justice system,” Miss Bowser said at a Wilson Building press conference. “In 2017, we will continue to use all available tools to create a safer, stronger D.C. Our residents and visitors deserve nothing less.”

If criminals on probation now tamper with GPS tracking devices, they could face up to six months in prison for the violation. Tampering with the device includes attempting to remove it, failure to charge it or trying to mask its signal.

A 2014 ruling by the D.C. Court of Appeals inadvertently created a loophole by stating that only criminals required to wear GPS devices by a judge or the U.S. Parole Commission could face additional punishment for tampering with or removing the devices.

The ruling allowed criminals forced to wear GPS monitors by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), a federal body charged with monitoring ex-offenders in the District, to remove or tamper with the devices without facing additional penalties.

The new law includes the city’s Pretrial Services Agency and the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, both of which also issue GPS monitors.

The Washington Post first reported the loophole in May.

Miss Bowser said the new law isn’t just about meting out punishment but also to make sure the District can continue to use GPS monitors with the full force of the law behind it.

She said GPS devices are a significant tool in monitoring compliance by criminals on supervised release, and can deter recidivists and aid in criminal investigations. Miss Bowser pointed to a 2013 drive-by shooting on North Capitol Street that wounded 13 people as a case in which law enforcement agencies were able to make arrests because of GPS monitoring devices.

Not everyone is on board with the new law: The American Civil Liberties Union and the D.C. Public Defender Service testified that the legislation is unconstitutional during a D.C. Council Judiciary Committee hearing in October.

“This is not about a loophole. This is about the line between constitutional and unconstitutional,” Public Defender Service General Counsel Laura Hankins told the committee. “The current tampering with a detection device statute may not be a model of clarity, but it has the benefit of being constitutional.”

Because the appeals court ruled that CSOSA, the Pretrial Services Agency and the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services don’t have the right to monitor ex-offenders, those agencies have no right to arrest someone for tampering with GPS devices, Ms. Hankins argued.

“Approaching the issue as a loophole that can be closed with a mere tweaking of the statute comes from too narrowly viewing the issues implicated by the D.C. Court of Appeals,” she said.

Such confusion and conflict have often arisen from the District’s divided responsibilities for law enforcement. City officials make laws and city police enforce them, but federal prosecutors, judges and prison officials deal with offenders after they’ve been arrested. And that can lead to gaps in information-sharing.

“On a day-to-day basis, we want to look at how we can make sure the speed of information gets processed more quickly,” Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Kevin Donahue said Wednesday. “Clearly, cases that are raised require all of us to look at how we can be better at doing that.”

Mr. Donahue also said GPS monitoring can work as a second chance for those who follow the rules and that shouldn’t be discounted.

“Quite frankly, what everyone’s goal is that if someone is doing their job we provide opportunities for them to have a second chance. And if someone’s not, that we hold them accountable,” he said. “This all leads to reduced recidivism, particularly of violent offenders.”

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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