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Tests found major flaws in parolee GPS monitoring devices

One company's devices were deemed so unreliable that California ordered a complete switch to another firm's, citing 'imminent danger' to the public. A lawsuit ensued.

March 30, 2013|By Paige St. John

Among the problems: 3M's devices failed to collect a GPS location every minute, phone in that information every 10 minutes and forward a text message to a parole agent if a problem was detected. Without revealing how well STOP performed, the state said 3M collected only 45% of the possible GPS points.

Testers also were able to fool 3M's GPS devices by wrapping monitors in foil, something that triggers an alarm on STOP's device because it has a metal detector.

Engineers and experts within 3M's electronic monitoring division vigorously dispute the alleged faults. They accused California of rigging the tests to steer the contract to STOP.

"This is one agency's testing," said Steve Chapin, vice president of government relations for 3M's electronic monitoring division. "We have the most widely used system in the world. It's been proven time and time and time again to be very safe and reliable."

In a heavily censored declaration, Milano also disclosed a test in which the 3M ankle monitor failed to "wake" from a battery-saving sleep mode, creating uncertainty about an offender's location. She cited the rest mode issue, along with what she described as a four-year history of other problems, as grounds to order parole agents in April 2012 to immediately replace every state-issued 3M monitor in California with one from STOP.

3M argued in court that GPS signals are blocked so frequently that no ankle monitor can really distinguish between accidental and deliberate interference. Its device triggers tamper alerts only when both GPS and cell signals are lost for more than two minutes, a feature even the company said is not foolproof.

"Neither 3M nor STOP can produce a device that will read the offender's mind to determine his or her intent, so the devices can only 'assume' that a tamper is intentional," 3M said.

A Sacramento County judge in February ruled that Milano had violated state contract laws, but he upheld her decision that 3M failed state standards.

Industry experts say the issues raised with 3M are not unique to that company, and problems with the state's monitoring system probably still exist.

Peggy Conway, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring, said every electronic monitoring system has blind spots and weaknesses.

"There is no one perfect product," she said.

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