Articles Posted in Criminal Defense

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united-states-2361405_1920-1The “First Step” bill now circulating in the U.S. Senate promises to make some changes to sentencing and imprisonment that would ameliorate harsh penalties and treatment.  However, it does not go far enough, and in some cases it actually takes a step backward.  There are multiple provisions, but I will look at only one of them, which makes changes to the mandatory minimum sentences imposed on defendants convicted of drug offenses based on their prior criminal history.

Section 401 of the bill is titled “Reduce and Restrict Enhanced Sentencing for Prior Drug Felonies.”  The bill does both of these things: it reduces the mandatory minimums applicable to each enhancement category, and it restricts the prior offenses that trigger enhancement.  But it also adds an entirely new category of prior offense that can trigger enhancement.

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In 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (“DPH”) discovered that state lab chemist Annie Dookhan had tampered with drug samples and falsified drug analyses submittedlaboratory-2815641_1920 to DPH’s Hinton drug testing lab in Boston, where she was employed as an analyst, and that the tainted results were then used as evidence in criminal trials. Her misconduct began in 2003 and extended until the end of 2011.  Over the course of the next two years the understanding of the scope of her misconduct grew, until it became apparent that over 40,000 criminal cases were affected.  Multiple litigations later, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion (its third involving Dookhan) which tried to find a middle way between wholesale dismissal of the cases she had a hand in analyzing and painstaking, time-consuming and expensive case-by-case determination of the impact of her misdeeds.  As my colleague discussed at the time, in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for Suffolk District, the SJC fashioned a remedy in light of four principles:

  1. The government must bear the burden of taking “reasonable steps” to remedy egregious misconduct on its part;
  2. Relief from a conviction generally requires a convicted defendant to file a motion for relief;
  3. Dismissal of a criminal conviction “with prejudice”, i.e. without the option to re-file charges, is a remedy of last resort; and
  4. Where the misconduct affects large numbers of defendants, the remedy must be not only fair, but timely and practical.

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By: Melissa Ramos*

In an October 2017 opinion, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided that a judge could no longer instruct a jury about a defendant’s refusal to take a breathalyzer test unless the defendant requested the instruction. An individual stopped on suspicion of operating a vehicle under the influence, more commonly known as OUI, already had a legal right to take or refuse a breathalyzer, and the refusal could not be entered into evidence at trial. However, until recently, the prosecutor could request that the judge instruct the jury that they could not consider the absence of adult-alcoholic-arms-174936breathalyzer evidence at trial when determining guilt or innocence—an instruction that could focus the jury on the absence of that evidence and cause them to speculate that the defendant had refused the breathalyzer. Now, during a trial for OUI, the absence of breathalyzer evidence should not be mentioned in jury instructions unless at the request of the defendant.

In Commonwealth v. Wolfe, the defendant was charged with OUI in 2015. He had two trials; the first ended in a mistrial. During both trials, there was no evidence presented of the defendant’s blood alcohol level. During the second trial, the judge instructed the jury, over the defendant’s objection, not to consider the absence of breathalyzer tests in their deliberations. The judge decided to give the instruction because the jury in the first trial had asked about the lack of breathalyzer test. The second jury ultimately convicted the defendant. Continue reading

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Earlier this month, the Supreme Judicial Court held that a defendant has a right to enter a “conditional plea.”   A conditional plea allows a defendant to plead guilty but preserves the defendant’s right to appeal soCourtroomme of the trial court’s rulings on legal issues.   If the defendant wins the appeal, the plea becomes unenforceable; it is essentially void.   For defendants who have legal defenses to charges – like, for example, a motion to suppress, or a challenge to the government’s interpretation of the reach of a particular criminal provision – a conditional plea is often the only meaningful way for defendants to challenge a lower court’s ruling. Continue reading

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Marijuana has been in the news this summer.  Medical marijuana has been increasingly available in Massachusetts since it was approved, first by voters then by the legislature in 2012.  There are currently 36 medical marijuana dispensaries regularly providing marijuana to medical cardholders.  In the first half of 2018 well over 9,000 kilograms of marijuana has been dispensed to some 56,000 cardholders.Marijuana-2

On July 1, in compliance with a ballot initiative approving the recreational use of marijuana, the state licensed the first grower for recreational marijuana, approving 10-20,000 square feet of grow space. That single licensee, by industry estimates, should be capable of producing, very conservatively, 30 grams per square foot per harvest, or 30-60 kilograms per harvest.  Assuming 6 harvests per year, this licensee should be able to produce 180-360 kilograms of marijuana per year.  There are 40 pending applications for cultivation licenses. In addition, recreational users are permitted to grow their own plants for personal consumption.

 

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Justice Gaziano, of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), makes a proclamation in the first paragraph of that Court’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Wilbur W.  that may be startling to many members of the public, especially teenagers: “When two minors have consensual sexual relations, both of whom are members of the class the statute [criminalizing statutory rape] is designed to protect [i.e. they are under 16], each has committed a statutory rape.” What Justice Gaziano does not mention is that the crime of statutory rape carries a penalty of up to life in prison, as well as lifelong sex offender registration. This reality raises significant questions about how we as a society handle sex between juveniles and when the criminal law is an appropriate—or humane—tool. The SJC largely dodged those questions in Wilbur W., but they are bound to recur, probably sooner rather than later, in the courts of the Commonwealth. In the meantime, juveniles remain subject to the same criminal liability as adults for having sex with anyone under 16—even if the sex is consensual, and regardless of how their age compares to that of their partner.

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On April 13, 2018, Governor Baker signed a law overhauling many aspects of the Massachusetts criminal justice system. My colleague Naomi Shatz recently covered the ways that the bill made pretrial diversion available to more defendants, and introduced a new program of diversion through restorative justice. Both of those programs, if successfully completed, allow defendants to move forward without a record of conviction, or even without a record of arraignment.

The reform legislation also takes several steps to expand the ability of defendants to turn the page on prior criminal cases by sealing or expunging their prior records. Although these provisions will not become effective until October, at that point they will have far-reaching effects for many individuals. I previously addressed the pre-reform state of the law a few years ago for this blog. As things stand until the new law takes effect, a defendant must wait 5 years after a conviction of a misdemeanor before being able to seal his or her record, 10 years for a felony, and 15 years for sex offenses that can be sealed. Non-convictions (such as dismissals after a continuance without a finding) can be sealed either after those waiting periods, or by petitioning a judge to seal the record sooner. Continue reading

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On Friday, Governor Baker signed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill into law, and because it contained an emergency preamble it went into effect upon signing. The law makes significant changes to defendants’ ability to get a pre-arraignment diversion — a way to resolve a case without any criminal record.Criminal-Justice-Reform-Act

Under the old law (Mass. G.L.c. 276A), a defendant could obtain a pre-arraignment diversion if she met all of the following criteria, set forth in section 2 of the law:

  • The case was one where a prison sentence was possible and the district court had final jurisdiction;
  • Was between ages 18-22 or was a military veteran;
  • Had not previously been convicted of any crime;
  • Did not have outstanding warrants or criminal cases in any court;
  • Received a recommendation from a program that she would benefit from the program.

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Pre-Arraignment-DismissalOn March 22, a decision by the Massachusetts Appeals Court made a small but significant change in the authority of District Court and Boston Municipal Court judges to screen out criminal charges that may have been improperly issued or legally flawed. In Commonwealth v. Moore, the Appeals Court held that these judges cannot decide a motion to dismiss a complaint for lack of probable cause before a defendant is arraigned – that is, before a defendant formally faces the charges and pleads guilty or not guilty. This decision has the potential to substantially increase the number of people in Massachusetts with criminal records, many of whom may face adverse consequences from employers or others. This result will waste judicial resources and is contrary to the goals of the criminal justice reform bill that just passed the Legislature. It should be addressed promptly by the Legislature and/or reversed by the Supreme Judicial Court.

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SJC-Victim-Sentencing-Recommendations

In the recently decided Commonwealth v. McGonagle, the Supreme Judicial Court considered whether a Massachusetts statute that allows victims of crimes to recommend a sentence violates (1) the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bosse v. Oklahoma, 137 S. Ct.  1 (2016)); and (2) the defendant’s due process rights. The SJC concluded that consideration of a victim’s sentence recommendation in a non-capital case does not violate either the federal or Massachusetts constitutions. While victims’ accounts regarding the effect of the crime provide relevant information for a sentencing judge, allowing victims to make a specific sentence recommendation seems unfairly prejudicial to the defendant and irrelevant, and the SJC’s reasoning in this case does not go far enough in addressing these concerns.

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