San Francisco's Ankle Monitor Rules Put On Hold

By Marco Poggio | February 14, 2024, 9:18 PM EST ·

A federal judge in California has halted the San Francisco Sheriff's Office from enforcing rules that forced criminal defendants released pretrial under electronic monitoring to agree to be subjected to warrantless and suspicionless searches at any time and allow their GPS data to be shared among law enforcement agencies, court documents show.

In an order Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar for the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction ordering the sheriff to stop enforcing the rules while a lawsuit challenging them as unconstitutional plays out. Moreover, the ruling paved the way for the suit, which was filed by a group of criminal defendants who were subject to electronic monitoring, to continue as a class action.

In the complaint filed in September 2022 against the city and county of San Francisco, plaintiffs Joshua Simon, Josue Bonilla and David Barber argued the electronic monitoring conditions violated both the federal and state constitutions by infringing on their rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, and their right to privacy.

Judge Tigar said in his order that the plaintiffs had properly shown they were likely to succeed in their claims that the electronic monitoring program rules were unconstitutional, and that they were harmed by them.

"Plaintiffs have shown that this arrangement likely has resulted in the sheriff impermissibly imposing its own intrusive conditions of release upon class members on a blanket basis without individualized assessment of their necessity by a neutral decisionmaker," the order says.

The judge gave the San Francisco Sheriff's Office 14 days to cease enforcing its surveillance rules and 35 days to produce a written report demonstrating compliance with the court order.

"This is a big win for privacy rights," Shilpi Agarwal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which represents the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "In our legal system, courts, not the sheriff, determine which intrusions on privacy are necessary for public safety, and they must do so in each individual case. The sheriff usurped the court's authority and did so for every person granted pretrial release, regardless of their individual circumstances."

ACLU attorney Emi Young told Law360 it's unclear whether similar electronic monitoring conditions are imposed in other jurisdictions.

"I can say that, as far as we're aware, this is an area that has not been extensively litigated in the past, particularly with respect to the collection and sharing of GPS data," she said.

According to a memorandum filed by the plaintiffs, the Sheriff's Office has received an increasing number of requests for GPS location data in recent years. The office received four such requests in 2019. In 2020, the number of requests went up to 41, and it soared to 179 in 2021.

In a statement to reporters, the San Francisco City Attorney's Office, which represents the city and county, is considering "next steps" but gave no specifics.

"We are disappointed by the court's ruling and will assess potential next steps accordingly," the office said.

Alex Barrett-Shorter, a spokesperson for the office, did not clarify whether it is considering appealing the order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Simon, Bonilla and Barber were respectively 19, 43 and 40 years old and pending trial on criminal charges by the time they filed the initial complaint on Sept. 8, 2022, in California Superior Court.

In the suit, the plaintiffs challenged what they called "systematic intrusions on the privacy" of people released pretrial on electronic monitoring in San Francisco by forcing criminal defendants to agree to a set of rules they claimed were not authorized by the court.

They said one rule authorizing any law enforcement agencies to carry out warrantless searches without the need for probable cause on criminal defendants and one authorizing the Sheriff's Office to share their GPS data with any law enforcement agency upon request violated the California Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

According to the complaint, Sheriff Paul Miyamoto required all electronic monitoring participants to submit to the searches at any time, for any reason, without a warrant, probable cause, or suspicion of a crime. Those searches — also known as "four-way" searches — extended to the people as well as their property, car and homes.

The sheriff also routinely shared real-time and historical GPS location data from ankle monitors with other law enforcement agencies without a warrant or any suspicion of involvement in a crime, the ACLU said.

Because Sentinel, the private company contracted by the Sheriff's Office to monitor the criminal defendants, had no policy in place for how and when to erase location data, including for people no longer wearing the ankle monitors, law enforcement had access to the data indefinitely.

Simon consented to be placed under electronic surveillance because he was eager to get out of jail so he could attend his high school graduation.

"Plaintiff Simon believed he had no choice in the matter if he wanted to remain out of jail, so he initiated and signed as he was instructed to do," the complaint says.

Although he thought they were punitive, Barber agreed to the terms of electronic monitoring so he could be released and keep his job and apartment. Bonilla, meanwhile, agreed to wear the ankle monitor because he has a physical disability that makes being in jail particularly challenging, the complaint says.

The City Attorney's Office said on Wednesday that the plaintiffs agreed to the conditions of the program and did not seek clarity on the conditions before filing their lawsuit.

The plaintiffs were joined in their suit by an individual taxpayer plaintiff, Diana Block, who claimed her tax money was wasted on an electronic monitoring program that did not improve public safety, and by a nonprofit called Community Resource Initiative that also opposed the use of ankle monitoring.

In May, in response to the litigation, the Superior Court in San Francisco adopted a new form order that allowed a judge to choose whether to impose a limited search clause, which would permit searches of electronic monitoring participants by sheriff's deputies, or a broader clause that would permit any law enforcement officer to search the person without a warrant or probable cause.

Later, the Sheriff's Office adjusted its practices to reflect that the scope of the search condition or search clause was dependent on what was authorized by the court's form order.

After the case was removed to federal court, the San Francisco City Attorney's Office asked Judge Tigar to dismiss the suit as moot because by then the named plaintiffs were no longer under electronic monitoring, and in light of the tweaks the Superior Court and the Sheriff's Office had made to their practices.

On Tuesday, however, Judge Tigar said the suit could proceed, reasoning that those changes only applied to people who were placed on the electronic monitoring program after they took effect. The judge found that the claims raised by the plaintiffs were still relevant for members of the class they sought to represent.

About 90 individuals remain enrolled in the electronic monitoring program under the same terms the plaintiffs challenged in their suit, the judge said in the order. Tara Moriarty, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office, told Law360 that, as of Thursday, there were only 37 people wearing ankle monitors.

The San Francisco Public Defender's Office, which represents most individuals who are released on electronic monitoring while awaiting trial in their criminal cases, welcomed the court's decision in a statement.

"We celebrate this legal victory as a vindication of our clients' constitutional rights. The sheriff ignored our warning that subjecting presumptively innocent people released on electronic monitoring to blanket searches and sharing their private GPS location data is illegal," San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said. "I am grateful the federal court has recognized that our clients' release on electronic monitoring does not give the sheriff a blank check to intrude upon the intimate details of their private lives."

Judge Tigar sent back to state court the claim brought by Block, which involves a provision in California law allowing taxpayers to bring actions to prevent illegal expenditure of funds.

The plaintiffs are represented by Shilpi Agarwal, Avram Frey, and Emi Young of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and Justina Kahn Sessions and Eunice Leong of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.

The City and County of San Francisco and Sheriff Miyamoto are represented by Jose A. Zelidon-Zepeda and Alexander Justin Holtzman of the San Francisco City Attorney's Office.

The case is Simon et al. v. City and County of San Francisco et al., case number 22-cv-05541, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

--Editing by Michael Watanabe.

Update: This story has been updated with the most recent number of people under electronic monitoring in San Francisco provided by the Sheriff's Office.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!