Articles Posted in Criminal Defense

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By: Leah Durst, Legal Internblogger-336371_1920

Former California Congresswoman Katie Hill recently resigned after sexually explicit photos of Hill and a staffer engaged in consensual sexual activity were leaked, allegedly by her abusive ex-husband. Her resignation should trigger broader discussions about the consequences of living in a digital age: how do we view and treat victims and perpetrators of “revenge porn”?  What legal rights are there for people whose sexual privacy has been invaded, and what legal consequences are there for those who access and distribute such material? It turns out that Massachusetts is one of the last states to take up this question at the legislative level. 

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copLast month, the Supreme Judicial Court issued Commonwealth v. Matta, a case that makes it easier for police to stop individuals – especially those in high crime neighborhoods – without any reasonable suspicion.

Background

On the evening of November 5, 2015, an anonymous caller contacted police on two occasions and stated that they had seen someone put a gun under the front seat of black car with two male and two female occupants.  The caller claimed that the car was parked in the city of Holyoke in an area described as “known for violent crime, drug sales, and shootings.”  An officer who was dispatched to the scene saw a parked green car with only two passengers.  The officer pulled up behind the green car and parked, without lights or a siren.  As the officer exited his vehicle, he observed the defendant, who had been seated in the passenger seat, exit the car and adjust his waistband with both hands. The defendant then began walking toward nearby bushes away from the sidewalk.  The officer called out to him, “Hey, come here for a second.”   The defendant then made eye contact with the officer and started to run, holding onto his waistband as he ran. At this point the officer yelled at the defendant to stop and then ran after him.  As the defendant was running, the officer observed him throw a plastic bag over a fence and onto a sidewalk.  Several officers apprehended the defendant as he tried to climb the fence, and once they arrested him, the officers saw six wax baggies at his feet and found small wax baggies on the other side of the fence, totaling 129 baggies that were later determined to contain heroin.

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John_Adams_Courthouse_-_Suffolk_County_Courthouse_-_Boston_MA_-_DSC04718-1This week the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) decided Commonwealth v. Newberry, in which it held that judges must arraign defendants prior to assigning them to pretrial diversion if the Commonwealth seeks arraignment. In my opinion the decision is wrong on the law, and eliminates an essential avenue for some defendants to avoid the negative consequences of a criminal charge on their records.

Under the law in question, the court may “at arraignment” delay the case for two weeks for assessment of the defendant’s suitability for diversion to a treatment or other program in lieu of prosecution. (The “program” in question can include community service, so diversion is a possibility even for those not in need of, for example, mental health or substance abuse treatment.) At the two-week return date, the court may, if it determines that the defendant is eligible for diversion, continue the case for 90 days to allow the defendant to complete the program, and then dismiss it following that period. The question in this case was whether the defendant must be arraigned before the case is diverted, if the Commonwealth so requests. Before the decision certainly many judges believed that they had authority to divert cases pre-arraignment even if the prosecution objected, and our office secured this disposition for a number of defendants. For example, in January 2019 I convinced a judge to grant a client pre-arraignment diversion on condition that he complete an anger management course and community service, over the objection of the Commonwealth.

This case will change the availability of that option. The SJC read the language in the statute stating that these events must take place “at arraignment” to mean that they cannot happen pre-arraignment if the prosecution objects. To my mind this reading is not at all mandated by the plain language of the statute. I would read the language “at arraignment” to indicate only that the determination should be made at the defendant’s first appearance before the court, i.e. their scheduled arraignment. The statute does not use language such as “after arraignment,” which would clearly indicate that defendants must actually be arraigned before diversion, or directly address whether diversion can take place prior to arraignment. And it nowhere gives the prosecution authority to stand in the way of diversion if the court finds it to be warranted, so it is bizarre that the court’s statutory reading gives prosecutors the discretion whether or not to demand arraignment in a particular case.

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hammer-802301_1920The grand jury is a centuries-old institution, dating back at least to the Magna Carta in England, and enshrined in both state and federal constitutions in this country. In order to charge someone with a felony, a prosecutor must present sufficient evidence to a group of ordinary citizens to establish probable cause that the defendant committed the crime. The grand jury is both an investigative body – the grand jury has the power to issue subpoenas, typically at the prosecutor’s suggestion – and a check on the authority of the prosecutor. The felony prosecution cannot proceed if the grand jurors vote a “no bill” and refuse to indict.

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hammer-620011_1920As part of the substantial criminal justice reforms enacted last year, the Massachusetts legislature gave a break to certain “first offender” juvenile delinquents.  It did so by narrowing the definition of “delinquent child” found in G.L. c. 119 § 52, which effectively divests jurisdiction from the Juvenile Court for such “first offenders” because the Court has no jurisdiction except of “delinquent children.” In relevant part, the statute now defines “delinquent child” to be “a child between 12 and 18 years of age who commits any offense against a law of the commonwealth; provided, however, that such offense shall not include . . . a first offense of a misdemeanor for which the punishment is a fine, imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 6 months or both such fine and imprisonment.” Previously, a “delinquent child” was defined as “a child between seven and 18 who violates any city ordinance or town by-law or who commits any offence against a law of the commonwealth.”   

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breathalyser-1684431_1920On July 29, 2019, Judge Robert A. Brennan lifted the “presumption of unreliability” which had kept breathalyzer tests in drunk driving cases out of evidence since August 2017. This decision is the latest in a series of decisions Judge Brennan has made in Commonwealth v. Ananias, a case that raised the question of whether breathalyzer tests are reliable enough to serve as evidence in OUI prosecutions. In February 2017, Judge Brennan recognized the “presumptive unreliability” of thousands of breath tests administered by police officers using the Alcotest 9510 device. Specifically, Brennan found that the methodology the Massachusetts State Police Office of Alcohol Testing (OAT) used for annually certifying the devices from June 2011 to Sept. 14, 2014, did not produce “scientifically reliable” blood alcohol-content results. In 2018, prosecutors agreed not to introduce the results of breathalyzer tests administered as far back as September 2011. On January 9, 2019, Judge Brennan issued a sanctions order that established seven requirements for the state to meet before the Draeger Alcotest 9510 could be considered reliably calibrated.

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squad-car-1209719_960_720When police conduct traffic stops, a wide array of legal principles come into play in seemingly simple interactions, including Fourth Amendment search and seizure law, the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and refuse to incriminate yourself, laws governing civil traffic infractions, and the criminal law. (While what you should do if stopped obviously varies depending on the situation, the ACLU provides some useful general principles for how to conduct yourself if the police pull you over.) Among all of the various complex legalities of a traffic stop, however, one requirement in Massachusetts is fairly simple, though little-known: under the Massachusetts “no fix” statute, for nearly all motor vehicle offenses, police must give the violator a citation at the time and place of the violation. If they fail to do so without justification, the violator has a defense “in any court proceeding for violation,” meaning that even criminal charges against the violator must be dismissed.

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In a decision released today, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that driving with improperly restrained children does not constitute reckless endangerment under state law. 

Suzanne Hardy was charged with several crimes, including reckless endangermentafter her nephews were killed in a car crashOn the day of the accident, Ms. Hardy, who was taking care of her four-year-old son and her two nephews, ages four years and sixteen months, decided to drive the children from her house to her nephews’ home. By statute, children under eight years old in Massachusetts must ride in a car seat, unless they are at least 57 inches tall. The defendant put her own son in his booster seat, put the 16-month-old in a front-facing car seat (with the straps at an improper height), and buckled her 4-year-old nephew, who was 44 inches tall, into the car without any booster seat. She had a second booster seat with her but chose not to use it.   

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Massachusetts has a unique system for certain criminal complaints, where both a police officer or private individual can apply for a criminal complaint and a clerk magistrate will decide whether there is probable cause for a criminal complaint to be issued. This process is available for most misdemeanor crimes and some felony crimes where an individual has not been arrested. A hearing before a clerk magistrate—also known as a show cause” hearing—serves an important function in the Massachusetts criminal justice system because it screens out certain potential complaints at an early stage without creating a criminal record for the accused. If the clerk magistrate does not find probable cause, the clerk magistrate will not issue a criminal complaint. If the clerk magistrate finds probable cause, he or she can either issue a criminal complaint or exercise discretion and decide not to issue a complaint. 

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Police-lightLast week, the Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed that in Massachusetts, evidence unlawfully obtained from a police search will be excluded in criminal trials even in cases in which the police had good reason to believe the search was legal. That ruling buttresses a longstanding difference between federal law and Massachusetts law. In federal court, prosecutors can insulate police errors by arguing the police had a good faith basis to use an illegal tactic, and therefore evidence should not be suppressed. Not so in Massachusetts – at least for now.
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