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House Committee Debates Merits Of GPS Trackers In Domestic Violence Cases

Andrea Hunziker of Lehi
Julia Ritchey
Andrea Hunziker of Lehi holds up a photograph of her sister, Sharee Nelson, who was killed by her ex-husband in 2002. She supports a bill to expand use of GPS monitors in domestic violence cases.

The Utah House Judiciary Committee was already stretching into its third hour of a hearing on Friday evening when Andrea Hunziker came up to testify in support of H.B. 253, a bill that could broaden the use of electronic monitoring on defendants charged with domestic violence.

“I come to you today to give my sister Sharee Nelson a voice again, and tell you about my storm that came with no warning,” she said as she propped up an enlarged photo of her slain sister beside her.  

Her voice quivering, Hunziker recounted how Nelson was murdered in 2002 by her soon-to-be ex-husband, shot in the chest then face as she slept in her Spanish Fork home, her three children in rooms next door.

“[If] this bill would’ve been in place, this would’ve saved her life,” said Hunziker. “He drove all the way from Colorado — he’d already violated numerous protective orders.”

For the second year in a row Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, has introduced the GPS tracking legislation after last year’s bill ran into cost concerns. This year, Spendlove says, he trimmed the price tag to $50,000, down from $500,000.

“What we know is that this technology, while it exists and it can help victims, it’s not being used,” said Spendlove.

It’s one of more than two dozen bills the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition is lobbying for this session after a spate of high-profile domestic violence slayings in recent years. Spendlove said the impetus for his own bill was the 2017 shooting death of Sandy resident Memorez Rackley and her son by an ex-boyfriend.

Citing 2018 statistics, Spendlove said out of 860 domestic violence convictions in Utah, GPS tracking was only used in 43 of them — less than 5 percent of cases.

But several committee members raised concerns over due process, particularly in pre-trial hearings where a defendant has not yet been charged.

“I’m somewhat uncomfortable prior to a conviction hearing, on a crime … saying we’re going to monitor every single place that you go,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland.

“There’s a significant concern with due process,” echoed Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden. ”And the concern with any pre-trial due process in this case would be the lack of a clear standard.”

After more than an hour of testimony, lawmakers voted to hold the bill, granting Spendlove time to allay some members’ concerns.

At the same committee on Friday, House Judiciary members gave a favorable recommendation to a bill by Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, creating a new category of protective orders for a person who is sexually abused by someone other than a partner or spouse.

Advocates like Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, say it will broaden and strengthen the array of restraining orders Utah currently has.  

“Like the GPS bill, sometimes we see systems of government concerned about the fiscal impact to the courts or to the Department of Corrections, but ultimately when you look at the cost of these crimes, at a community level, these sorts of bills are saving money and saving lives,” said Oxborrow.

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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