The 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.
As 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.”
On 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.
When 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.
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 endangerment, after her nephews were killed in a car crash. On 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.
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.
Last 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.
CONTINUE READING ›
Massachusetts courts often require individuals on probation, particularly sex offenders, to wear GPS monitors that track their every movement. Imposing this requirement, the state’s highest court said for the first time recently, is a search, meaning that a judge can only lawfully require such monitoring after making an individualized determination that balances “the Commonwealth’s need to impose monitoring against the privacy invasion occasioned by such monitoring.”
The two decisions issued by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Commonwealth v. Feliz and Commonwealth v. Johnson, are the first to apply Grady v. North Carolina, a 2015 Supreme Court decision holding that GPS monitoring is in fact a search protected under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable” searches. While the SJC had previously treated GPS monitoring as something else, calling it, for instance, “punishment” for committing an offense, Feliz and Johnson clarify that under both federal and state constitutional law, GPS monitoring is in fact a search. Applying its own new standard, the SJC reached contrasting results, deciding that GPS monitoring was unreasonable in Feliz but reasonable in Johnson.
Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on what the government must show in order to obtain an order compelling a defendant to enter his password into a locked phone. While holding that compelling such an act is testimonial in nature and does implicate a person’s right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment and art. 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the Court held that where the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it already knew that the defendant knows the password, the information sought is a foregone conclusion and compelling the defendant to enter the password is constitutionally sound. CONTINUE READING ›
How does a court determine when consensual sex becomes rape? That is the question the Supreme Judicial Court just tackled in Commonwealth v. Sherman. The facts of the case are not relevant to the legal question at issue; it is enough to know that the defendant argued that he had entirely consensual sexual intercourse with the victim, while the victim claimed that the entire encounter was not consensual. Under Massachusetts law, to prove rape the Commonwealth must prove three things: (1) that there was sexual intercourse between the defendant and the victim; (2) that the defendant accomplished that intercourse by force or threat of force; and (3) that at the time of penetration the intercourse was against the will of the victim (i.e. without the victim’s consent).