By MEG KINNARD
COLUMBIA - People convicted of child-sex crimes in South Carolina should have the right to challenge rulings ordering them to be electronically monitored for life, the state's highest court ruled Wednesday.
The ruling comes in the case of [name withheld], who was deemed a sex offender for her conviction on a charge of a lewd act on a child involving a 14-year-old girl in Greenville County. Although she was found to be at low risk to re-offend, her probation was revoked for various violations, including drinking alcohol and having a relationship with a convicted felon.
The probation violation meant that authorities could seek lifetime monitoring for [name withheld] without a chance of appeal. That kind of monitoring can be done for just two crimes — lewd act and first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor — with most other sex offender registry crimes giving an offender a chance to appeal after 10 years.
A year ago, the justices ruled that the lifetime monitoring was too harsh a punishment for a low-risk sex offender like [name withheld] and ordered a lower court to reconsider her case. The court also said [name withheld]' constitutional rights had been violated because she hadn't been allowed to appeal the monitoring decision. But the justices stressed that they didn't think all satellite monitoring of sex offenders was unconstitutional, or that the rights of high-risk offenders who are monitored for life were being violated.
Justices also said the split between offenders who could and couldn't appeal made the punishment too arbitrary.
State probation officials asked the court to rehear the case, which it did last fall. In its ruling Wednesday, the court said that offenders who commit the same crimes as [name withheld] also have the right to appeal.
Rejecting [name withheld]' argument that she shouldn't be subjected to monitoring at all, the court said that "lifetime imposition of satellite monitoring implicates a protected liberty interest to be free from permanent, unwarranted governmental interference."
"The complete absence of any opportunity for judicial review to assess a risk of re-offending ... is arbitrary and cannot be deemed rationally related to the legislature's stated purpose of protecting the public from those with a high risk of re-offending," Justice John Kittredge wrote.
In a dissent, two justices said they would eliminate lifetime electronic monitoring altogether. A spokesman for the state probation department didn't immediately comment on the ruling.
Of the 463 South Carolina offenders currently on electronic monitoring, 140 are under lifetime observation and will be affected by the ruling, according to Pete O'Boyle, spokesman for the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services. That means they will be allowed to petition for relief a decade after their sentence and every five years thereafter if they're turned down, O'Boyle said.