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GPS tracking in domestic violence cases

By: 19 April 2011 One Comment

It’s a saying common in legal circles — an order of protection is a piece of paper that won’t stop a knife or a bullet.

Travis County Court Division 4 Judge Mike Denton of Austin, Texas, says he understands the reasoning behind that saying even if he doesn’t completely agree with it. Denton said an order of protection can be very effective if it is enforced. In most cases, people who are prohibited from coming in contact with someone by an order of protection will obey the order. In some cases, however, people just aren’t reasonable and that’s where heightened enforcement is important.

“I think the more we do to enforce it, the more effective it is,” he said. “It’s not a self-enforcing document.”

Denton was in Fayetteville last week as one of the presenters at the Best Practices for Domestic Violence and Child Custody continuing legal education (CLE) seminar put on by Legal Aid of Arkansas. Denton presides over a number family law cases and, as such, has seen his share of domestic abuse situations.

He was at the seminar to talk, in part, about how to get communities involved in curbing domestic violence. One of the methods his court has used since about 2002 is global positioning satellite (GPS) tracking in those cases involving “a real threat” of bodily harm to one of the parties.

Denton said GPS tracking can be effective, but it does require the cooperation of a number of parties. A court might order GPS tracking, but the local prosecutor’s office, law enforcement officials and even the monitoring company have to be on the same page to make it an attractive way to curb domestic violence.

How does the technology work? Denton said he generally orders the use of GPS tracking to exclude people from certain areas. For example, an abusive husband going through a divorce might be ordered to stay away from his wife’s employment, school or home. If the person ordered to wear the GPS tracking device goes into one of those zones, the monitoring company is alerted and law enforcement officials can be dispatched to the scene immediately.

Again, that kind of coordinated effort takes the cooperation of a number of parties. When that cooperation is present, Denton said GPS tracking can effectively curb domestic violence from occurring.

“It takes a team effort,” he said. “It’s not an easy, snap your fingers process.”

Denton pointed out that GPS tracking isn’t appropriate in every case — just the ones where danger is a real threat. He said the technology reaches past the domestic realm, too, pointing out that some criminal courts have used it effectively. For example, someone who has been convicted of sexual abuse of a minor might be excluded through GPS tracking from entering a school zone.

How does one get fitted with a GPS tracking device? Denton said a defendant might be ordered to wear one as a condition for being released from detention on bond or the court can simply order a defendant to wear one if the judge finds the alleged abuser poses a legitimate threat to the person seeking an order of protection.

Denton said the technology is relatively new, pointing out he’s been using if for around nine years but the use of GPS tracking was codified into Texas state law over the past couple of years.

The judge said he’s sold on the effectiveness of GPS tracking, pointing out he’s in the process requesting more units from Travis County. Denton said GPS tracking costs about $300 to $350 a month and that cost is typically paid by the person who is tracked. However, in some cases the respondent doesn’t have the means to pay for tracking — that’s where the county or state should step in and pick up some of the costs for the service and equipment.

In Arkansas, Springdale City Attorney Jeff Harper said GPS tracking is seeing some use here in the Natural State. He said the technology is most commonly used in criminal cases, but there have been some instances where GPS tracking has been ordered in domestic abuse situations.

“It’s worked for us and it’s worked well,” he said of the technology.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email =

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