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Long Arm of the Law Has Them by the Anklet

Devices use radio waves or global positioning to monitor wearers. The GPS units pinpoint a person's location, but cost can be an issue.

June 27, 2003|Akilah Johnson and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Andrew Luster, the fugitive rapist who was recently captured in Mexico, slipped away despite an electronic anklet that was supposed to notify authorities if he fled.

If Luster strayed more than 150 feet from his Mussel Shoals house in Ventura County, a radio transmitter in the device was to flash a message -- "out of range" -- that would be relayed every 15 minutes to a monitoring service.

But the service was instructed to ignore the warnings during the 12 hours a day that Luster was permitted to leave his home. On the day he fled, the warning signal came at 8:30 a.m. but was ignored until he failed to return home by his 8 p.m. curfew.

The escape of Luster, a great-grandson of cosmetics mogul Max Factor, represents among the most public failures of a warning system that law enforcement and court authorities have come to rely on.

Luster's was a traditional device, like those used by Los Angeles County, which employ radio waves and don't track a person's specific movements.

When a federal judge approved the release of Katrina Leung, accused of being a double agent for China, on $2-million bond, it was on condition that she be monitored every minute.

Unlike traditional electronic anklets, the device Leung will be equipped with is hooked up to a global positioning satellite system and can monitor her every move, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All such devices use U.S. Defense Department satellites. The state-of-the-art monitor Leung will wear is about the size of a portable car stereo -- though others are smaller -- and represents the next generation in electronic surveillance.

"GPS is your big dog, the best form of offender tracking you are going to get besides having somebody in a locked facility," said Kristin Campbell, spokeswoman for the Irvine-based Sentinel Offender Services, which provides home detention services to Los Angeles County.

"It's LoJack for a person. It's OnStar," she said, referring to two well-known systems that use similar GPS technology to track vehicles.

The GPS system has made it possible for authorities to pinpoint the location of a defendant.

There are about 1,000 people on house arrest in Los Angeles County, most of whom pay $40 a month for the radio monitoring system. About 100 federal defendants in the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles, are tracked by the more sophisticated GPS monitoring system.

Federal officials, who began using the system two years ago, say it is a more accurate way to track defendants awaiting trial. But Los Angeles authorities say it's too expensive for the number of people they watch.

Both systems rely on the transmissions of an electronic anklet to ensure that a person stays within a designated space.

In the GPS system, the anklet works in tandem with a defendant's hand-held monitor. The two devices communicate often to make certain that the monitor is not handed off to another person or abandoned to divert authorities from their subject.

The monitor, meanwhile, communicates directly with the GPS system.

A signal from the satellite beams to the monitor at 10-second to one-minute intervals. The time and the wearer's location are then transmitted to an Internet database, from which correctional officers may access the information any time.

"We fill that black hole of information from when they leave home to when they return," said Jim Stark, who is president of iSECUREtrac Corp., a Nebraska-based manufacturer of the monitors.

Leung, 49, is restricted to her home, her lawyers' offices in downtown Los Angeles and an unidentified location where defense attorneys are allowed to review classified government documents in the case.

If she strays, a federal officer will be alerted immediately, said Eli Goren, head of the federal court's pretrial electronic monitoring division.

"It's all about accountability. We want to be able to respond immediately," said Goren.

Federal officials have used the technology to track known sex offenders such as Albert Pinedo, a former middle school administrator charged with distributing child pornography over the Internet.

While he was awaiting trail, federal officials released him from custody on the condition that he stay away from schools, playgrounds or video arcades.

Every minute, the mobile unit that he carries records and stores his location. At the end of the day, the unit transmits his whereabouts to a Web site that federal officers can access to see where he's been.

Electronic monitoring saved Los Angeles County $18 million last year by taking inmates sentenced to 60 days or less out of crowded jails and sending them home to serve their time, said Sheriff's Deputy Al Wood.

To qualify, inmates must have a phone and be willing to pay $40 a month for the service.

About twice a month someone in the program flees. A noncompliance team tracks down fugitives.

"If they cut the monitor and split, we usually return them to jail within two days," Wood said.

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