MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When a stolen car crashed and burst into flames in a front yard in North Memphis last month, police say they arrested the four teens in the car — including one who was already wearing an ankle monitor from a previous incident.
Memphis is experiencing a spike in juvenile crime. Officials say 40% of those arrested for auto theft are 17 and under, and more than 100 children are wearing electronic ankle monitors. But some wonder whether those monitors are helping to prevent crime.
“There is something very wrong with this picture,” said Venora Travers, who was out of town when she got a call from a friend telling her that her yard was on fire from the wreck.
“If [the juvenile] had already been in trouble and on a monitor, why weren’t they monitoring him to the point he couldn’t steal another car,” Travers asked.
Memphis police stated that afternoon on Feb. 9, a Dodge Charger with temporary tags was speeding down Hollywood, then onto Eldridge, where it struck two vehicles and kept going.
Officers said they followed it and watched the vehicle try to take a sharp left, striking a curb and landing in Travers’ front yard.
The driver apparently kept pushing the gas pedal, causing smoke and then a spark from under the car. They said the vehicle was reported stolen from Carmax on Highway 64 two weeks prior.
A neighbor hit record when he saw the orange Charger in flames. Police had it surrounded.
Officers said they detained the four juveniles in the car: a 17-year-old driver, a 15-year-old, and two 16-year-olds. One was wearing an ankle monitor from a previous incident. They didn’t say what that incident was.
It’s not the first time a juvenile was wearing an ankle monitor while allegedly committing another crime. Last summer, police say a 15-year-old wearing an ankle monitor shot and killed a beloved pastor during a carjacking.
We asked Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon if he thinks the electronic monitoring program is working.
“It’s working,” he responded in an interview in December.
He said his team added stricter compliance orders when he took office in August and the juveniles assigned an ankle monitor are typically charged with a violent act. They are either waiting on their day in court or it’s part of post-adjudication, meaning part of their sentence.
As of Feb. 23, Juvenile Court reported they were electronically monitoring 122 children.
“Statistics show that the more a child is exposed to jail or juvenile system, the more they are likely to recidivate. That is what we have to avoid,” Sugarmon said.
Police say they don’t have access to ankle monitor data
Through the Tennessee Open Records Act, WREG Investigators uncovered the contract with the ankle monitor provider to see how it works.
The company out of Houston stated the device receives “one GPS location point per minute,” and if it can’t get the GPS location, the device “automatically initiates” “backup tracking technology” that uses a “combination of cellular tower data.”
Judge Sugarmon says they have 5-11 staffers depending on the time of day, keeping an eye on it 24-7.
“As soon as they get an alert, they try to call the youth, then the parent to try to find out what’s going on. Then they notify the police department,” he said.
He said that notification happens immediately. We also found out the system can track a teen’s “location and movements” on Google Maps and lay out information like “GPS location points, curfew violations, tamper alerts, zones” and more.
But right now, Memphis Police don’t have access to that, Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis in a recent City Council meeting.
She told council members that the department wants better access.
In the contract, the company states it offers a tool just for law enforcement. Basically, it can sync up to the department’s crime tracker and “automatically compares” it to the “movements of offenders” to see if a juvenile was in a location at the time a crime was reported.
Right now, that tool is not being utilized for juveniles in Shelby County.
MPD Deputy Chief Stephen Chandler believes it would help, and he said they’ve been in talks with Juvenile Court about it.
“It would allow us to not only know the child but hopefully intervene before a more serious act,” he said. “We do have limited access. We can call Juvenile Court with specific names, and they’ll give us that, but we are looking for increased access to it.”
Court concerned about Fourth Amendment rights
Juvenile Court officials told us “there are concerns with sharing real-time data” and “doing so would bring Fourth Amendment rights into play.” If police use the data to arrest a juvenile, it could trigger complaints of illegal search and seizure.
They went on to state they want to “make sure before starting fruitful conversations with MPD, that all of the legal aspects have been researched and addressed.”
The court does not have a timeline for when that will happen.
“We are doing the best we can to monitor and fortunately, we have had good compliance with our youth,” Judge Sugarmon told us.
Juvenile Court reported they had “concerns” with 38 children who were being electronically monitored last year. We don’t know why they had a concern, if and how a child violated their terms or the consequences they faced.
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As for Travers, she said the teens left a mess that day. Her prized yard was destroyed and her beloved Japanese maple tree was charred. There is damage to the siding of the home.
“I don’t understand about the raising of the kids. How can they just be so out of control?” Travers said.
Police say they charged the juveniles with motor vehicle theft, and the 17-year-old driver was also charged with reckless driving and having no driver’s license.
“The best I can do is pray for them,” Travers said. “I can’t save all the kids. I wish I could because this would have never happened.”
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