For over 40 years, Massachusetts has had an avenue of pretrial diversion in criminal cases, which allows young individuals accused of less-serious crimes to avoid a criminal record. Specifically, defendants under age 22 with no prior convictions who are charged in state District Court (or the Boston Municipal Court) can seek a diversion under Chapter 276A of the General Laws. (Sex offenses and certain other crimes are not eligible for pretrial diversion.) If the court agrees, the defendant’s arraignment can be postponed while the defendant participates in a “program” with an aim toward rehabilitation and preventing future offenses. A “program” can include any of a number of different things, including medical, psychological, or substance abuse treatment; education, training, or counseling; community service; or “other rehabilitative services.” After the defendant completes the program, the court may dismiss the charge without it ever showing up on his or her criminal record. Continue reading
As I previously wrote , in December 2016 Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure was changed to give law enforcement more expansive authority to conduct searches of computers. How the new procedural rule will interact with core constitutional values and established legal principles, as well as what the practical consequences of the rule are, remain open questions.
(1) Fourth Amendment
The proposed changes may well fall afoul of the Fourth Amendment. As I have discussed in a previous blog post, the Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. It does this by requiring the government to obtain a warrant before conducting most searches, by requiring those warrants to be supported by probable cause, and by requiring the warrants to be particular about the location to be searched and the items to be seized. Continue reading
In December 2016, a federal policy-making body known as the Judicial Conference of the United States made it much easier for federal law enforcement to hack into private computers and mine personal data regardless of the computer’s location. It did this simply by changing Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Supreme Court approved the changes in April 2016, and Congress recently declined to take steps to block or delay the changes. That means that the changes have now gone into effect, and law enforcement now will have a much easier time obtaining warrants to search computers—and possibly also have an easier time surviving constitutional challenges to those warrants.
What is Rule 41, And What Did the Change Do?
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41 governs procedures related to search warrants and seizures. It governs what law enforcement must do in order to obtain and then execute a search warrant; what a magistrate judge must do to issue a warrant; and what a person must do to move for the return of property or suppression of evidence unlawfully obtained.
Over the last several years, the Massachusetts criminal justice system has been rocked by misconduct in state-run drug labs. First, and so far most significant, Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the Hinton State Lab in Jamaica Plain, tainted over 42,000 state convictions by employing several different scientific shortcuts to boost her efficiency and productivity. Rather than meticulously testing each sample to determine whether or not it contained cocaine, heroin, or other suspected drugs, her practices over several years included “dry-labbing,” or combining samples from different cases and testing them all at once, then recording the results under each case; fabricating records that she tested and calibrated lab equipment as required by protocol, in order to save time; and contaminating samples that tested negative with drugs so that they would test positive. The Supreme Judicial Court has addressed cases involving Dookhan several times already. As if this were not disturbing enough, a second chemist at a different state lab, Sonja Farak, undermined the integrity of thousands of drug cases in Western Massachusetts over 8 years by using methamphetamine, cocaine, and a variety of other drugs while at work; stealing and consuming both standard comparison drug samples and drugs that were seized by police; and using lab equipment to manufacture crack cocaine. Between Dookhan and Farak, prosecutors have (presumably unknowingly) used fabricated or unreliable evidence to convict or induce guilty pleas from thousands of people in Massachusetts. Continue reading
Like that of many states, Massachusetts law provides for enhanced criminal penalties for specified drug offenses committed in close proximity to parks or schools. Defendants who commit such offenses in so-called “school zones,” which the statute defines as any location within 300 feet of a school of any kind, including any public or private accredited preschool or Head Start facility, or a “park zone,” defined as any location within 100 feet of a public park or playground, at any time of day except between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., are subject to a mandatory two year sentence, on top of any punishment imposed for the underlying crime. The statute is explicitly clear that “lack of knowledge of school boundaries” is not a defense; a person who is found to have committed a drug offense within the stated distance from a school is subject to the enhanced penalty regardless of whether they knew of the school’s location or even of whether the school was easily recognizable as such (an issue with some preschools and Head Start facilities, which are often located inside larger buildings primarily devoted to other purposes.) As draconian as this law remains, it is actually an improvement on the version of the law in place until 2012, under which “school zones” included any location within 1,000 feet of a school, regardless of the time of day.
In its decision in Commonwealth v. Peterson, issued on January 3, 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) set a limit on the statute’s application for the first time. In Peterson, the defendant was a passenger in a car with three other people. When the car stopped at a traffic light at an intersection near a public park, the police officers in the car behind it determined that its inspection sticker had expired. They pulled the car over shortly afterward, at a location that was no longer within one hundred feet of the park. The ultimate results of the stop were the discovery of drugs and a semi-automatic weapon, and the arrest of the defendant, who was charged with a number of crimes including a violation of the school zone statute.
In my last blog post, I discussed some of the steps Massachusetts has taken in recent years to reform the state’s criminal justice system and the problems that remain in that system. In this post, I will discuss some reforms that Massachusetts should enact in the next legislative session.
For starters, Massachusetts must abolish mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses once and for all. Despite the liberal political leanings of many in state government, the state’s District Attorneys somehow remain staunchly opposed to any such reform. According to the title of a 2015 letter in the Boston Globe signed by nine of the Commonwealth’s DAs: “Opponents of mandatory minimum sentencing fail to account for reality.” That’s a bold choice of headline, particularly once you consider that those reality-ignoring opponents include Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who systematically tore apart the arguments in favor of mandatory minimums in a 2015 speech at UMass-Boston, as well as Catholic leaders from across the Commonwealth. Continue reading
At the federal level, efforts at criminal justice reform have been trapped in a legislative logjam. Despite considerable bipartisan consensus on the subject – including the backing of the notorious Koch brothers, who fund Republican candidates across the country – no significant legislation has passed through the United States Congress. That, despite the fact that the United States currently houses 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails. That translates to an incarceration rate of 693 per 100,000 people – a rate far in excess of Iran, Zimbabwe, and Singapore. A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that 576,000 people who are currently incarcerated could be freed with little-to-no impact on public safety, at a savings of $20 billion annually. According to the report, 364,000 prisoners could be subject to alternatives to incarceration – treatment, community service, or probation – while another 212,000 have already served lengthy prison terms and could be directly released into the community.
At the federal level, the only steps to remedy the effects of our draconian system have come from the executive branch. Attorneys General Holder and Lynch have told their line prosecutors to pursue fewer mandatory minimum sentences, and Holder urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to apply a recent reduction in drug sentences retroactively to reduce the sentences of thousands of those currently incarcerated. In addition, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,176 prisoners and issued 148 pardons – far more than any other president in history. But even those historic numbers are a mere drop in the proverbial bucket. With a federal prison population of 190,058 inmates, Obama’s clemency numbers constitute about 0.6% of that group. Those numbers will likely increase a bit before January 20th, but executive clemency is a poor substitute for true legislative reform. Continue reading
Early one morning in 2013, Verissimo Tavares fled the Boston Police on his motor scooter, and in the process tossed away what turned out to be a gun. He was charged and convicted in federal court of the crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and was sentenced to seven years, which was a “departure” from the recommended sentence of 10-12 ½ years that the federal sentencing guidelines prescribed.
Had Mr. Tavares been a newcomer to the criminal justice system, the guidelines would have produced a recommended sentencing range of between 3 and 4 years. His history, and in particular his previous convictions of “crimes of violence” doubled his sentence and could, without the departure, have tripled it. In particular, Mr. Tavares had previous convictions for resisting arrest and for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and both of those convictions were considered “crimes of violence” by the sentencing judge, with the result that his sentencing range skyrocketed.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Tavares appealed, and the First Circuit took up, for the umpteenth time, the question of what constitutes a “crime of violence” with a substantial impact on how much time a convicted defendant will have to serve. Continue reading
We have previously covered on the blog the implications of Massachusetts initiatives regarding marijuana and the interaction between Federal and state drug laws. In 2008, voters decriminalized the possession of an ounce of marijuana under state law. In 2013, voters set up a system for the medical use of marijuana in Massachusetts. Possession, distribution, or use of marijuana in any form remains illegal under Federal law, and the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration recently reaffirmed the placement of marijuana on Schedule I, meaning that it has “no currently accepted medical use,” a “high potential for abuse,” and a “lack of accepted safety for [its] use.” However, in 2014 Congress enacted into law an Obama administration policy permitting states to implement medical marijuana laws, giving a subtle positive signal at least for medicinal use of marijuana.
This week, Massachusetts voters again gave the green light to marijuana reform in the form of Question 4. Question 4 is long and complex, but we can summarize some of its most important provisions. Under Question 4, starting on December 15, 2016, it will no longer be illegal under Massachusetts state law for anyone 21 years old or older to possess an ounce or less of marijuana, or up to 5 grams of marijuana concentrate. Within one’s own home, an adult over 21 is permitted to possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana, grow up to 6 marijuana plants (up to a total of 12 plants at a time for two or more people), and possess any marijuana grown on the premises. Individuals committing these acts are protected against any criminal or civil penalties under state law; by contrast under current state law possession of marijuana without appropriate medical documentation is at least a civil infraction with a $100 fine, and cultivation or possession of more than an ounce is criminal.
In June, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor attracted attention for her dissent in Utah v. Strieff. In that case – which held that a court need not suppress the fruits of a suspicionless stop if the individual has a pre-existing warrant for their arrest – Sotomayor wrote that the Court’s opinion would encourage more baseless stops and thus “risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens.” Setting aside legalese, Sotomayor cited the authors W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and discussed the humiliation that people of color experience due to their disproportionate targeting by the criminal justice system. She ended her opinion with the following passage:
We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274-283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but. Continue reading