Careful Scrutiny: The SJC and Mandatory Sentencing Laws

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by Jared B. Cohen

Legal Analysis 

The Supreme Judicial Court has long grappled with mandatory sentencing laws, expressing considerable skepticism and concern about their efficacy and fairness. Statutes that compel a fixed or minimum sentence for certain crimes shift power and discretion from judges to prosecutors. They often prevent courts from making individualized sentencing decisions tailored to the particular crime and defendant. Moreover, mounting empirical evidence shows that such laws disproportionately impact racial minorities.  

In recent years, statutes containing mandatory sentencing language have troubled the SJC and elicited a series of critical opinions. From the sharp skepticism expressed in Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, 475 Mass. 692 (2016), through its recent decision in Commonwealth v. Montarvo, 486 Mass. 535 (2020), which construed the controversial habitual criminal offender (or “three-strikes”) law, G. L. c. 279, § 25, to authorize a sentence of probation, the SJC has subjected these statutes to increasingly rigorous scrutiny. Absent a legislative overhaul to rewrite or reform the sentencing statutes, the SJC’s skeptical and exacting review of many mandatory sentencing laws will likely remain a feature of the criminal legal landscape.

Mandatory Sentencing: Impact and Outlook

For most crimes, judges have wide discretion to impose any sentence up to the statutory maximum penalty. The facts and circumstances of each case and defendant are distinct. Part of a judge’s role under this ordinary sentencing structure is to consider the nuanced variations of each case to fashion a fair and just punishment that is effective but not harsher than necessary to achieve the legitimate purposes of sentencing.[1]  

By contrast, some statutory offenses mandate a fixed or minimum sentence. These mandatory provisions may be triggered by the crime,[2] the defendant’s criminal history,[3] or the way the offense was committed.[4] While substantially removing discretion from judges, statutes that carry mandatory sentences transfer discretion, power, and leverage to prosecutors, who can offer charge concessions during plea negotiations. Defendants are frequently willing to plead guilty and accept some period of incarceration in exchange for the prosecutor’s dismissal of a charge carrying a longer mandatory minimum sentence.          

Mandatory minimum sentences also disproportionately affect Black and Brown defendants. The September 2020 Harvard Law School study commissioned by the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants[5] found that Massachusetts mandatory sentencing laws disproportionately affect non-white defendants, leading them to face longer periods of incarceration than white defendants.[6] Based on data from 2014 to 2016, the Harvard study concluded that the racial disparity in sentencing in Massachusetts is largely explained by the racial disparity in the severity of the initial charges that defendants face; for similar conduct, non-white defendants are more likely than white defendants to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences.[7] The study also cited numerous reports showing racial disparities in prosecutorial decisions to seek mandatory sentencing enhancements under “habitual offender” (or “three strike”) laws that have been adopted in many states.[8] 

The Harvard study supports concerns that the SJC has raised with increasing frequency over the past few years. In Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, 475 Mass. 692, 693 (2016), for example, the SJC held that trial judges have no lawful discretion to depart downward from minimum mandatory sentences set by statute. However, in the unanimous opinion written by Justice Margot Botsford, the Court observed that

[t]he efficacy, or lack of efficacy, of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly in drug crimes, is the subject of substantial public debate. But apart from the question of efficacy in terms of the purposes to be served by criminal sentences, data concerning convictions for drug offenses in Massachusetts raise a serious concern about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum sentences on defendants who are part of racial or ethnic minority groups.

Id. at 702. Laltaprasad suggested that “[i]t may be appropriate for the Legislature to consider anew, guided by the work of the [sentencing commission], the issue of authorizing sentencing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in relation to certain types of drug offenses in appropriate circumstances.” Id. at 703. 

Legislative action soon followed. In its landmark 2018 criminal justice reform law, the Legislature eliminated some mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level drug offenses, but left many others in place.[9] Later in 2018, Chief Justice Gants, who was joined by Justices Barbara Lenk and Kimberly Budd, suggested in a concurring opinion that the recently-enacted criminal justice reform legislation had only “begun the process of revisiting the wisdom and fairness of mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses,” and encouraged the Legislature to continue examining “the wisdom and fairness of other mandatory minimum sentences (including the length of those mandatory minimum sentences).” Commonwealth v. Baez, 480 Mass. 328, 332-33 (2018) (Gants, C.J., concurring) (emphasis in original).[10] 

Confusing Cases, Confusing Law

Against this backdrop, in recent years the SJC has wrestled with statutes that seemingly require a mandatory sentence, but which conflict internally or deviate from how similar language is used and understood in other statutes.

In Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 482 Mass. 366 (2019), the Court addressed G. L. c. 269, § 10(m). Section 10(m) states that a person who unlawfully possesses a high-capacity firearm or feeding device “shall be punished by imprisonment in a state prison for not less than two and one-half years nor more than ten years.” But the statute also provides that anyone holding a valid firearm ID card “shall not be subject to any mandatory minimum sentence imposed by this paragraph,” and later states that “[t]he sentence imposed upon such person shall not be reduced to less than one year.” Id. Unable to determine conclusively to whom this last clause was intended to apply, the Court held that the trial court lawfully sentenced the defendant to not less than one and not more than two-and-a-half years, rejecting the prosecutor’s argument that the two-and-a-half-year mandatory minimum applied. Rodriguez, 482 Mass. at 368, 373-74.[11]

A year later, in Commonwealth v. Thomas, 484 Mass. 1024 (2020), the Court construed G. L. c. 265, § 18B, which adds a penalty for possessing a firearm during the commission of any felony. Section 18B states that a person convicted of that offense “shall, in addition to the penalty for such offense, be punished by imprisonment for not less than five years.” G. L. c. 265, § 18B. By comparing the statutory language in § 18B to similar language used in other statutes, the Court held that § 18B did not require either a consecutive sentence or a five-year minimum sentence, but authorized any custodial sentence provided the maximum sentence is no less than five years. Thomas, 484 Mass. at 1026 n.8, citing Commonwealth v. Hines, 449 Mass. 183, 191-92 (2007). 

Another notable example involves the home invasion statute, G. L. c. 265, § 18C. In Commonwealth v. Brown, 431 Mass. 772 (2000), the SJC held that the statute’s primary penalty provision, that a person convicted of a home invasion “shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for life or for any term of not less than twenty years,” meant what its plain language suggests: “§ 18C establishes a mandatory minimum sentence and that offenders under this statute may be sentenced to a term ranging from twenty years (minimum) to life (maximum).” Id. at 775.

However, the Court noted in dicta that a 1998 amendment to the statute – that a person who commits a home invasion while armed with a firearm “shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for 20 years. Said sentence shall not be reduced to less than ten years.” – was “problematic” and “lacking in coherence,” in that it introduced inconsistent language. Id. at 780-81. The Court remarked that “[m]ost likely, the problems with the amendment were simply the result of a legislative oversight, one we cannot remedy. . . . We make no attempt to interpret the amendment, but invite the Legislature to clarify it.” Id. In a later appeal more directly implicating the 1998 amendment, the Court stated that even if some results might appear absurd, where it could not discern the Legislature’s intent as far as the required sentence for a particular home invasion conviction, it would resolve any uncertainty against the Commonwealth and in favor of the defendant. Commonwealth v. Burton, 450 Mass. 55, 59-60 (2007).

In 2004, the Legislature amended G. L. c. 265, § 18C, to its current form, simplifying the statute by removing some of the 1998 amendment’s confounding language, while still retaining the same general penalty provision that a home invasion “shall be punished by imprisonment . . . for life or for any term of not less than twenty years.” Although this simplified version resolved some earlier confusion about the length of the required sentence, it raised a new question as to the availability of probation: the previous version explicitly prohibited probationary sentences, but the 2004 amendment did not. In construing the amended statute, the SJC observed that the amendment “may indicate a legislative intent to give a sentencing judge the power, in appropriate situations, to impose a term of probation in lieu of incarceration.” Commonwealth v. Zapata, 455 Mass. 530, 535 (2009). Unable to answer that question conclusively, the Court applied the rule of lenity and held that the amended statute “does not prohibit a judge from sentencing the defendant to probation.” Id.

In Zapata, the Court conceded that its “result, which has the effect of offering a sentencing judge a choice between probation and a mandatory minimum prison term of twenty years, may seem contrary to common sense,” and “may appear to be an anomalous result.” Id. at 535-36. Thus, the Court “again invite[d] the Legislature to clarify G. L. c. 265, § 18C.” Id. at 536. To date, the Legislature has not done so. Nor would it be the last time the Court reached such an “anomalous result.”   

Déjà vu: Commonwealth v. Montarvo

In December 2020, the SJC issued another decision, this time construing the habitual criminal offender statute. That statute, also known as the “three-strikes” law, provides that any person convicted of a third qualifying felony “shall be punished by imprisonment in state prison or state correctional facility for such felony for the maximum term provided by law.” G. L. c. 279, § 25(a). Despite this seemingly plain language, in Commonwealth v. Montarvo, 486 Mass. 535 (2020), the Court held that the law allows a judge to impose a sentence of probation. In a unanimous opinion, the SJC found the sentencing provision ambiguous and once again concluded that the rule of lenity required a reading more favorable to the defendant.

To understand Montarvo, it is necessary to understand the habitual criminal offender law as a whole. The statute has two primary penalty provisions. Subsection (a) states that a person who is convicted of any felony after having twice previously been convicted of a felony and sentenced to prison terms of at least three years, “shall be considered a habitual criminal and shall be punished by imprisonment in state prison or state correctional facility for such felony for the maximum term provided by law.” G. L. c. 279, § 25(a). Subsection (b) states that a person who is convicted of one of nearly 40 specified violent crimes after having twice previously been convicted of qualifying offenses and sentenced to prison terms of at least three years “shall be considered a habitual offender and shall be imprisoned in the state prison or state correctional facility for the maximum term provided by law” for the specifically enumerated felony. G. L. c. 279, § 25(b). Subsection (b) further specifies that “[n]o sentence imposed under this subsection shall be reduced or suspended nor shall such person so sentenced be eligible for probation, parole, work release or furlough or receive any deduction from such person’s sentence for good conduct.” G. L. c. 279, § 25(b). There is no comparable provision in subsection (a).

Read in isolation from one another, each of these two subsections seems on its face to require sentencing a qualifying defendant to the “maximum term provided by law.” Reading the two provisions together, however, the SJC found inconsistency and ambiguity. The Court observed that although the plain text of § 25(a) seemed clear, the immediately following text of § 25(b) explicitly prohibiting probation (as well as parole and reduced or suspended sentences) implied that without such explicit prohibition in § 25(a), judges might still retain authority to deviate from a mandatory prison sentence under § 25(a). Montarvo, 486 Mass. at 537. The Court found this interpretation plausible given the text indicating “the Legislature intended the punishment imposed on the ‘habitual violent offenders’ sentenced under § 25(b) to be both more limited in its application and harsher once imposed than the penalties imposed under § 25(a).” Id. at 539. But other SJC precedent interpreting the statute’s basic sentencing language raised doubts about that proposition. Reading both subsections together, and employing all applicable tools of statutory interpretation, the Court concluded that, “whichever way the plain language of G. L. c. 279, § 25, is read, some aspect of it is superfluous. Thus, we are left to conclude that the text of G. L. c. 279, § 25 (a), is ambiguous on the matter of probation.” Id. at 540.  

Given the ambiguity, the Court looked unsuccessfully to legislative history and intent, reasoning that, “when the Legislature intends to bar probation, it knows how to say so explicitly.” Id., citing Zapata, 455 Mass. at 535. Ultimately unable to discern the Legislature’s intent or resolve the statute’s ambiguity, the SJC once again applied the rule of lenity, concluding that it “must read § 25 (a) to provide sentencing judges with the discretion to impose probation.” Id. at 542. This holding, the SJC acknowledged, “has the effect of offering a sentencing judge in some cases a Hobson’s choice between probation and a mandatory term of twenty years in prison,” which may seem nonsensical. “Yet if this choice sounds familiar,” the Court noted, “that is because it is. In Zapata, we reached the same result.” Id. at 543.[12] Once again, stymied by its own legal analysis, the SJC threw up its hands and pointed to an incoherent statutory scheme that guaranteed no satisfactory outcome.

Conclusion

Montarvo is simply the latest case that demonstrates the difficulty the courts have had interpreting many of the Commonwealth’s mandatory sentencing laws. Given the SJC’s underlying reservations about the disparate impact of mandatory sentencing laws, and the Court’s chafing at arbitrary restrictions imposed by particular statutes, it is likely that these laws will continue to be subject to careful scrutiny. It would not be a surprise to see future cases in which the SJC finds less-than-obvious exceptions or escape hatches to avoid the imposition of mandatory sentences that may seem clear on the face of a statute.

[1] See Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, at 102 (“Best Practice Principles for Individualized Evidence-Based Sentencing”). The Sentencing Commission “does not endorse the use of mandatory minimum sentences.” Id. at 59. 

[2] See, e.g., G. L. c. 265, § 1 (murder in the first degree “punishable with . . . imprisonment for life”); G. L. c. 269, § 10(a) (unlawful possession of a firearm outside of home or work “shall be punished by imprisonment . . . for not less than 18 months . . . in a jail or house of correction”); G. L. c. 269, § 10(m) (unlawful possession of a magazine with a capacity of more than 10 bullets “shall be punished by imprisonment in a state prison for not less than two and one-half years”).

[3] See, e.g., G. L. c. 94C, § 32(b) (mandatory penalty for possession with intent to distribute a Class A controlled substance based on prior convictions); G. L. c. 269, § 10(d) (mandatory penalties increased for unlawful possession of a firearm depending on prior similar convictions); G. L. c. 269, § 10G (mandatory penalties increased for unlawful possession of a firearm depending on prior criminal record).

[4] Compare G. L. c. 265, § 13B (penalty for indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 punishable by up to 10 years) with G. L. c. 265, § 13B1/2 (indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 committed during another enumerated crime or by a mandated reporter “shall be punished by imprisonment . . . not less than 10 years”). See also, e.g., G. L. c. 94C, § 32E (increasing mandatory sentences depending on weight of illegal drugs charged).

[5] In his first State of the Judiciary Address in 2014, Chief Justice Gants called for the elimination of mandatory sentencing laws in favor of individualized, evidence-based sentencing in all criminal cases. He noted that charges with mandatory minimum sentences give prosecutors more power than judges in sentencing and result in disparate and inequitable impact on minority communities. He made similar observations and calls to action when testifying before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in 2015. In his 2016 Judiciary Address, Chief Justice Gants announced that he had enlisted Harvard to study the persistent racial disparity in sentencing. 

[6] “Black and Latinx people charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences are substantially more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer sentences than White people facing charges carrying mandatory minimum incarceration sentences.” “Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System,” A Report by The Criminal Justice Policy Program, Harvard Law School (2020), at 2. More broadly, it found that in a number of ways, “mandatory and statutory minimum sentences contribute to the disparities we see in incarceration length for people of color.” Id. at 59; see generally id. at 2-4, 28-32, 52-64. 

[7] Id. at 64 (“Black and Latinx defendants tend to face more serious initial charges that are more likely to carry a mandatory or statutory minimum sentence. Despite facing more serious initial charges, however, Black and Latinx defendants in Superior Court are convicted of offenses roughly equal in seriousness to their White counterparts. . . . Further, the penalty in incarceration length is largest for drug and weapons charges, offenses that carry longstanding racialized stigmas. We believe that this evidence is consistent with racially disparate initial charging practices leading to weaker initial positions in the plea bargaining process for Black defendants, which then translate into longer incarceration sentences for similar offenses.”).

[8] These studies were based on data from jurisdictions outside of Massachusetts. Id. at 59.     

[9] Many individuals charged with common offenses, including unlawful possession of a firearm or drug distribution—even absent any allegation of violence—are still routinely subject to mandatory minimums.    

[10] In Baez, the Court held that prior juvenile adjudications may constitutionally be used as prior convictions for sentencing adult defendants under Massachusetts’s “armed career criminal act,” G. L. c. 269, § 10G. Chief Justice Gants wrote separately “to encourage the Legislature to consider the wisdom and fairness of the mandatory minimum aspect of those enhanced sentences, especially where the predicate offenses were committed when the defendant was a juvenile.” Baez, 480 Mass. at 332.

[11] Acknowledging this “imperfect” statute’s “opaque” language was described by various trial and appellate judges as “vexing,” “confusing,” and “no grammatical paragon,” and had “caused courts some consternation,” the SJC left little doubt about its view of § 10(m): “Harmonizing the provisions in a manner that does not make any of the statutory language superfluous, that sees the statute as a whole without internal contradiction, and that renders the legislation consistent with common sense, all as the Legislature intended, is quite the job with this statute. The legislative history, while interesting, is only minimally helpful in resolving the issue at hand.” Rodriguez, 482 Mass. at 368, 369-71, 373 (internal citations omitted). 

[12] As in Zapata, the Court in Montarvo invited the Legislature to clarify its intent: “Should the Legislature decide to do so, it may amend § 25(a) to bar a judge from imposing probation. It need not look far for how to accomplish this goal.” 486 Mass. at 543, citing G. L. c. 279, § 25(b).   

Jared B. Cohen is an Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Bureau of the Attorney General’s Office and a current participant in the BBA’s Public Interest Leadership Program.  This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Office of the Attorney General. Opinions of the Attorney General are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority.


Goodbye Substantial Contributing Factor: SJC Redefines the Massachusetts Causation Standard in Multiple Tortfeasor Cases

Creedon_Jresizedbtfitz_20140915_0129_Mby Jennifer A. Creedon and Stephanie M. Gazda

Legal Analysis 

In Doull v. Foster, 487 Mass. 1 (2021) (“Doull”), the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) adopted a but-for factual causation standard as set forth in the Restatement (Third) of Torts (2010) and abandoned the substantial contributing factor test in matters involving multiple tortfeasors or multiple causes, except for toxic tort cases.

Background

Doull involved a medical malpractice claim against two medical providers for alleged negligent treatment of the Plaintiffs’ decedent. Dr. Richard Miller and Nurse Practitioner Ann Foster treated Laura Doull from 2008 to 2011. Foster provided Doull with progesterone cream in 2008 to treat perimenopause-related symptoms, which Doull used through the spring of 2011. Between March and May 2011, Doull complained of shortness of breath on three separate occasions, but Foster diagnosed it a symptom of Doull’s allergies and history of asthma. Doull suffered a stroke in May 2011 and another doctor diagnosed her with a pulmonary embolism and chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH), a rare disease impacting the pulmonary artery and heart. Doull, 43 years old, died in 2015 from complications arising from CTEPH. Plaintiffs filed a complaint against Miller and Foster, alleging failure to obtain informed consent as to the potential risks of pulmonary emboli associated with the progesterone cream treatment and failure to properly diagnose and treat Doull for her symptoms of pulmonary emboli, leading to her premature death.

After the close of evidence at trial, the trial judge heard arguments concerning the disputed jury instructions. Plaintiffs argued for the application of the substantial contributing factor test. Under this test, to be found legally responsible for Doull’s injuries, the Defendants’ negligence need only be a substantial contributing factor in bringing about those injuries.[1] Defendants, on the other hand, sought a but-for causation instruction. Under this standard, even if they were found to be negligent, the jury would also have to find that Doull’s injuries would not have occurred but for their negligence. The trial court agreed that the but-for causation standard was the appropriate instruction.

The jury found that the Defendants did not fail to acquire informed consent from Doull regarding the progesterone cream. While the jury did find that Foster negligently failed to diagnose Doull’s pulmonary embolism and Miller failed to properly supervise Foster, it did not find this negligence was the “sole/but-for” cause of harm suffered by Doull under the trial court’s instruction.  

The SJC’s Decision

The main issues for the SJC to decide were, in a case involving multiple potential tortfeasors or potential causes of injury, whether the substantial contributing factor test may or must be used in lieu of the but-for standard in the causation jury instructions and whether the court should adopt a “factual cause” of harm standard, as provided in Sections 26 and 27 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts.

The SJC held that the but-for standard is the proper standard in most negligence cases, as it allows the factfinder to separate the necessary causes from other conduct that, although negligent, did not cause harm.[2] Under the Restatement (Third) of Torts, the factfinder can determine whether a tortfeasor is a factual cause even in instances where the cause was small but necessary.[3] The but-for standard does not require that a defendant must be the sole factual cause of harm.[4] Rather, it keeps the focus on whether the harm would still have occurred absent the defendant’s conduct.[5] Where multiple causes are alleged, which is often the case, it is appropriate to instruct a jury that there can be more than one factual cause of harm.[6] By recognizing that multiple causes can exist, the but-for standard precludes the need for substantial contributing factor in the causation analysis.[7]

In this case, the SJC found that the trial court’s but-for instruction to the jury was proper. The jury ultimately determined that the Defendants did not cause Doull’s injuries, despite breaching their duty as medical providers by failing to diagnose the pulmonary embolism, because the evidence showed that the demonstrated harm would have resulted even in the absence of their negligence. Thus, no causal connection existed between the Defendants’ conduct and Doull’s harm.[8] 

Despite being accepted and used by Massachusetts courts, the SJC observed that not only does the substantial contributing factor test create confusion as it is both too strict and too lenient, it also invites the factfinder to skip the factual causation inquiry by deciding the negligent conduct is substantial without determining whether it was even the cause of the harm. [9] Furthermore, it inserts a high degree of subjectivity as to what is substantial.[10]

Although the SJC chose not to extend its decision to toxic tort cases, the Court indicated in a lengthy footnote that it would reconsider the substantial contributing factor test in an appropriate toxic tort case in the future.[11] The SJC acknowledged that, because of the unique features of toxic tort cases, including the number of defendants involved, latency period of the diseases, and exposure from multiple sources, there might be difficulties in using the but-for standard in such cases. Additionally, there might be factual and scientific limitations on a plaintiff’s ability to establish the requisite causal connection between the harm and an individual defendant. 

Concurring in the judgment, Justice Lowy, joined by Justice Gaziano, agreed with the outcome of the case. Nonetheless, the concurrence criticized the majority for abandoning decades of precedent to alleviate confusion that does not exist, arguing that the substantial contributing factor test usefully directs the factfinder’s attention to the conduct of the parties in determining legal responsibility.[12] While the but-for test looks at what might have been and whether the harm would have occurred but for a defendant’s conduct, the substantial contributing factor test looks at what actually happened and whether a defendant’s conduct played a role in the result.[13] 

Conclusion

Given that the substantial contributing factor test has been used for over 100 years, Doull represents a significant change in Massachusetts tort law. The SJC saw an opportunity to untangle complex causal determinations by eliminating the substantial contributing factor test. Prior to Doull, a court could utilize a jury instruction that encompassed a substantial contributing factor test in lieu of a “but for” test in a multiple tortfeasor case. However, the substantial contributing factor test was never intended to be a wholesale replacement of but-for causation. In this way, Doull represents a return to concepts central to tort law, including the but-for standard. The decision marks an effort by the SJC to have the trial courts give consistent instructions on causation standards, and for the factfinder to determine whether a defendant’s conduct was a cause of the plaintiff’s harm. 

[1] See O’Connor v. Raymark Industries, Inc., 401 Mass. 586, 589 (1988). O’Connor defined the core principles of causation, including substantial contributing factor. Id. at 591-92. The trial court instructed the jury to find whether the plaintiff was exposed to asbestos from the defendant’s product, and if so, determine whether such exposure substantially contributed to the cause of his mesothelioma. Id. at 588-89. The trial court noted that “[i]t doesn’t have to be the only cause, but it has to be a substantial contributing cause. … It means something that makes a difference in the result.” Id. at 589. The jury found that while the plaintiff was exposed to asbestos from the product, such exposure did not substantially contribute to the cause of his mesothelioma. Id. at 587. On appeal, the SJC found that by defining a substantial contributing factor as “something that makes a difference in the result,” i.e., a but-for cause of the plaintiff’s harm, this implied that “the plaintiff had the burden of proving that the defendant’s product contributed in fact” to the eventual outcome “in a legally cognizable manner.” Id. at 592. 

[2] Doull v. Foster, 487 Mass. 1, 10 (2021). 

[3] Section 26 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Physical and Emotion Harm (2010) states that negligent conduct must be a factual cause of harm, meaning the harm would not have occurred absent the conduct, in order for one to be held liable. Multiple causes are addressed in Section 27, which provides that “each act is regarded as a factual cause of the harm.” Comment c to Section 27 further explains that if a defendant’s conduct was fully capable of causing the harm, then they cannot escape liability merely because of the existence of another sufficient cause.

[4] Doull, 487 Mass. at 12, citing Restatement (Third) of Torts, § 26 cmt c. 

[5] Id. at 12-13.

[6] Id. at 13, n.13. The SJC also refers to the concept of “causal sets” introduced in the Restatement (Third) of Torts, Section 26, cmt. c, which are defined as “the group of actions or conditions that were necessary to bring about the harm.” Id. at 13, n.14. Where the factual harm is an aggregate of multiple causes, the Restatement suggests that it is a causal set. Id.

[7] Id. at 13.

[8] Id. at 11-12.

[9] Id. at 15. 

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 17, n.22.

[12] Id. at 25, 27. 

[13] Id. at 26-27. 

Jennifer A. Creedon is a Partner at Martin, Magnuson, McCarthy & Kenney. Her practice encompasses a wide variety of products liability and business litigation matters. Jennifer authored an amicus brief in Doull v. Foster on behalf of the Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association (MassDLA).

Stephanie M. Gazda is an associate attorney at Martin, Magnuson, McCarthy & Kenney. Stephanie focuses her practice on toxic tort, products liability, and general liability matters.


Rethinking Batson-Soares

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  by Brian A. Wilson

   Legal Analysis

 As the American trial by jury system approaches its 400th year, unlawful discrimination in the selection of jurors remains a pressing issue. The peremptory challenge process – by which a party may object to the seating of a juror for virtually any reason without having to explain its motivation – has faced increasing scrutiny in the criminal trial context. Though not constitutionally guaranteed, the peremptory challenge has been hailed as having an “important role in assuring the constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury,” enabling a defendant to eliminate prospective jurors “whom he perceives to be prejudiced against him” or who may be “harboring subtle biases.”[1] It has simultaneously been criticized as a means by which prosecutors and defense attorneys engage in racial discrimination with virtual impunity, be it purposeful or motivated by implicit bias.

The Current Batson-Soares Framework

Over the past four decades Massachusetts has stood at the forefront of reform aimed at curbing discriminatory jury selection practices. Seven years before the United States Supreme Court held that a challenge based solely on race violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause,[2] and fifteen years before it deemed solely gender-based challenges to be similarly unconstitutional,[3] the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held in Commonwealth v. Soares, 377 Mass. 461, cert. denied, 444 U.S. 881 (1979), that Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights precludes the exclusion of jurors on the basis of “sex, race, color, creed or national origin.”[4] Soares established a method for analyzing the validity of a peremptory challenge that would influence the Supreme Court’s creation of its landmark framework in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

Massachusetts’s “BatsonSoares” analysis presumes that parties exercise peremptory challenges lawfully, but permits a party to object to a strike on grounds that it was motivated by unlawful discrimination. A timely objection entitles that party to an immediate “three-step” hearing. At step one, the objecting party bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case that the strike was “impermissibly based on race or other protected status by showing that the totality of the relevant facts gives rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose.” If the objecting party satisfies this “minimal” requirement, the hearing proceeds to step two and the burden shifts to the party that lodged the strike to justify it on “group-neutral” grounds. So long as that party offers a reason that is group-neutral on its face, the hearing proceeds to step three, at which the judge determines whether the explanation is “both adequate and genuine.” If the judge so finds, the peremptory challenge stands and the prospective juror is excluded; otherwise the strike is denied, and the juror is seated.[5]

Commonwealth v. Sanchez: A Proposal to Eliminate Step One

Acknowledging the possibility of confusion regarding the BatsonSoares first step burden, in Commonwealth v. Sanchez, 485 Mass. 491 (2020), a decision authored by Justice Gaziano, the SJC clarified that the objecting party need only demonstrate an “inference,” rather than a “likelihood,” of discriminatory purpose and no longer would it need to show a “pattern” of discrimination.[6] The case was significant for another reason, however: it marked the first time that a justice proposed, in a published opinion, eliminating step one entirely. Justice Lowy in his concurrence recommended that “upon timely objection to a peremptory challenge made on the basis of race or another protected class, [the judge] should conclude that that party has met the first prong of the Batson-Soares test.” Justice Lowy argued this would “impose a process that recognizes not just the perniciousness of racial discrimination, but implicit bias as well”; create “a fairer process for the parties, attorneys, prospective jurors, and the court”; and “result in fewer avoidable reversals of convictions.”[7] (This last point is discussed in more detail below.) In a separate concurrence, Chief Justice Gants agreed that “there are sound reasons to consider abandoning the first prong of the Batson-Soares test,” but only “in a case where the question is squarely presented” and where the Court would “have the benefit of briefing by the parties and amici.”[8] 

The majority was “unconvinced that removing the first step entirely is quite as simple or salutary as [Justice Lowy’s] concurrence suggests.” The majority voiced concern that since “every potential juror is a member of some discrete race or gender, every peremptory strike then would be subject to challenge and explanation.” This, it opined, would lead to two possibilities: (1) that the Court would require a party to have a good faith basis for objecting to a challenge, which “merely would reinstate the first step of the Batson inquiry in a different guise,” or (2) that it would impose no such requirement, which would create “a strong incentive to challenge every peremptory strike” because even an unsuccessful objection, “at a minimum, could reveal something of the opposing trial strategy.”  The latter course, the majority warned, “would alter the nature of a peremptory challenge so fundamentally that it would raise the question whether peremptory challenges simply should be abolished.”[9]

Eliminating step one would put Massachusetts in the company of only six jurisdictions – Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Washington, and the United States Court of Military Appeals – that have departed from the Batson framework and require only that a defendant object on grounds of unlawful discrimination to satisfy the prima facie burden and trigger step two of the hearing.[10] As significantly as it would alter the BatsonSoares test, however, Justice Lowy’s proposal does not represent as radical a departure from Massachusetts practice as it may seem. For years the Commonwealth’s judges have, upon objection to a challenge, remained free to bypass step one sua sponte; the SJC has “persistently urged, if not beseeched, judges to reach the second prong and elicit a group-neutral explanation regardless of whether they find that the objecting party has satisfied the first prong.”[11] In fact, Massachusetts stands among a handful of states that empower a trial judge to object to a challenge sua sponte, thereby triggering a Batson hearing even where the non-challenging party remains silent.[12] 

Legislative Intent to Eliminate Step One

A bill entitled “An Act Addressing Racial Disparity in Jury Selection” (Senate Bill 918), which would create a new statutory framework for analyzing the validity of peremptory challenges, is currently under consideration in the Massachusetts Legislature. Virtually identical to a court rule Washington enacted in 2018, the law would essentially eliminate step one of the Batson-Soares test by mandating that, upon a timely objection by the opposing party or the judge sua sponte, the proponent of the strike “shall articulate the reasons the peremptory challenge has been exercised.”[13] Following what is essentially step two in its current form, the judge would then conduct the equivalent of step three and “evaluate the reasons given to justify the peremptory challenge in light of the totality of circumstances.”[14] Factors the judge would consider in determining their validity include, but would not be limited to:

[1] the number and types of questions posed to the prospective juror, which may include consideration of whether the party exercising the peremptory challenge failed to question the prospective juror about the alleged concern or the types of questions asked about it; . . . [2] whether the party exercising the peremptory challenge asked significantly more questions or different questions of the potential juror against whom the peremptory challenge was used in contrast to other jurors; [3] whether other prospective jurors provided similar answers but were not the subject of a peremptory challenge by that party; [4] whether a reason might be disproportionately associated with a race or ethnicity; and [5] whether the party has used peremptory challenges disproportionately against a given race or ethnicity, in the present case or in past cases.[15]

The trial judge would ultimately determine whether “an objective observer could view race or ethnicity as a factor in the use of the peremptory challenge.” If so, the judge would deny the challenge, even in the absence of a finding of “purposeful discrimination.”[16]    

The bill enumerates seven reasons deemed “presumptively invalid,” all of which the Washington rule recognizes as “historically . . . associated with improper discrimination in jury selection”:

(1) having prior contact with law enforcement officers; (2) expressing a distrust of law enforcement or a belief that law enforcement officers engage in racial profiling; (3) having a close relationship with people who have been stopped, arrested, or convicted of a crime; (4) living in a high-crime neighborhood; (5) having a child outside of marriage; (6) receiving state benefits; and (7) not being a native English speaker.[17]

The bill also acknowledges, as does the Washington rule, the concern that attorneys often cite a venireperson’s behavior in court to disguise a racially motivated strike. The bill mandates that any challenge “based on the prospective juror’s conduct (i.e. sleeping; inattentive; staring or failing to make eye contact; exhibiting a problematic attitude, body language, or demeanor; or providing unintelligent or confused answers) . . . must be corroborated by the judge or opposing counsel or the reason shall be considered invalid.”[18]  

One Further Consideration

While several states are debating whether to continue following the Batson protocol, whether Massachusetts retains step one is a critical issue in part because of the legal consequences of a “first-step error” relating to a prosecutor’s peremptory challenge. The SJC deems an incorrect ruling that the defendant failed to establish a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination a “structural error” that automatically requires a new trial. The Court consistently declines to follow the practice of federal and most state appellate courts, which typically remand for a hearing to allow the trial judge to conduct the belated step two and step three analyses.[19] Therefore, the erroneous termination of the inquiry at step one and resulting absence of any explanation from the prosecutor – which is wholly within the province of the trial judge to order sua sponte – necessarily results in a conviction being vacated, even where eliciting a legitimate race-neutral reason might be possible on remand. This rule mandated the reversal of three first-degree murder convictions within a fifteen-month span in 2017 and 2018, which Justice Lowy cited as proof of step one’s “unnecessary and inefficient” nature.[20]

Conclusion

Though the Court has not revisited the question since Sanchez, the viability of BatsonSoares in its current form remains a live issue. It appears the Judiciary, the Legislature, or both will decide before long whether to retain the “minimal” burden of proving a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination, to eliminate step one entirely, or to adopt some middle ground. Meanwhile trial judges across the Commonwealth will, unlike in most other states, enjoy broad discretion to require an attorney to justify a challenge even in the absence of an objection. As such, Massachusetts remains at the forefront of the movement to end unlawful discriminatory selection practices.

[1] Commonwealth v. Bockman, 442 Mass. 757, 762 (2004).

[2] See generally Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

[3] See generally J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B., 511 U.S. 127 (1994).

[4] Soares, 377 Mass. at 488-89.

[5] Commonwealth v. Jackson, 486 Mass. 763, 768 (2021) (internal quotations omitted); Commonwealth v. Sanchez, 485 Mass. 491, 510 (2020). See also Batson, 476 U.S. at 96-98 (defendant must first demonstrate “the prosecutor has exercised peremptory challenges to remove from the venire members of the defendant’s race. . . . Once the defendant makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the State to come forward with a neutral explanation. . . . The trial court then will have the duty to determine if the defendant has established purposeful discrimination”). Acknowledging “the variety of jury selection practices” followed nationwide, the Supreme Court left the states to decide whether to adopt Batson’s procedural framework. See id. at 99 & n.24.

[6] Sanchez, 485 Mass. at 492.     

[7] Id. at 515 (Lowy, J., concurring).

[8] Id. at 518 (Gants, C.J., concurring).

[9] Id. at 513 n.19. Several since-retired justices have called for the elimination of peremptory challenges entirely. See Commonwealth v. Maldonado, 439 Mass. 460, 468 (2003) (Marshall, C.J., concurring) (joined by Justices Greaney and Spina in noting that “it is all too often impossible to establish whether a peremptory challenge has been exercised for an improper reason” and declaring it “time to either abolish them entirely, or to restrict their use substantially”); Commonwealth v. Calderon, 431 Mass. 21, 29 (2000) (Lynch, J., dissenting) (suggesting that “rather than impose on trial judges the impossible task of scrutinizing peremptory challenges for improper motives, we abolish them entirely”).

[10] See State v. Holloway, 553 A.2d 166, 171 (Conn.), cert. denied, 490 U.S. 1071 (1989); State v. Johans, 613 So.2d 1319, 1321 (Fla. 1993); State v. Parker, 836 S.W.2d 930, 938 (Mo. 1992); State v. Chapman, 454 S.E.2d 317, 320 (S.C. 1995); United States v. Moore, 26 M.J. 692, 698-700 (A.C.M.R. 1988) (en banc); Wash. Gen. R. 37(d) (2018). California will likewise eliminate step one in criminal trials beginning on January 1, 2022. See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 231.7 (2020). In Hawaii a prima facie case is established where a prosecutor strikes all members of the venire who share a common identity group with the defendant. See State v. Batson, 788 P.2d 841, 842 (Haw. 1990).

[11] Sanchez, 485 Mass. at 515 (Lowy, J., concurring). See also Commonwealth v. Issa, 466 Mass. 1, 11 n.14 (2013) (urging judges to “think long and hard before they decide to require no explanation from the prosecutor for the challenge”).

[12] See Commonwealth v. Smith, 450 Mass. 395, 405, cert. denied, 555 U.S. 893 (2008) (where defense counsel does not object to prosecutor’s challenge, “a judge may, of course, raise the issue of a Soares violation sua sponte”); Commonwealth v. LeClair, 429 Mass. 313, 322 (1999) (“Whether the [objection to the defendant’s peremptory challenge] was initially raised by the Commonwealth or the judge, sua sponte, is immaterial”).

[13] S. Bill 918, 192nd Gen. Ct. (Mass. 2021). See Wash. Gen. R. 37(c)&(d).

[14] S. Bill 918, 192nd Gen. Ct. (Mass. 2021). See Wash. Gen. R. 37(e).

[15] S. Bill 918, 192nd Gen. Ct. (Mass. 2021). See Wash. Gen. R. 37(g). See also Sanchez, 485 Mass. at 518-19 (finding relevant “(1) the number and percentage of group members who have been excluded from jury service due to the exercise of a peremptory challenge; (2) any evidence of disparate questioning or investigation of prospective jurors; (3) any similarities and differences between excluded jurors and those, not members of the protected group, who have not been challenged (for example, age, educational level, occupation, or previous interactions with the criminal justice system); (4) whether the defendant or the victim are members of the same protected group; and (5) the composition of the seated jury”).

[16] S. Bill 918, 192nd Gen. Ct. (Mass. 2021). See Wash. Gen. R. 37(e).

[17] S. Bill 918, 192nd Gen. Ct. (Mass. 2021). See Wash. Gen. R. 37(h).

[18] S. Bill 918, 192nd Gen. Ct. (Mass. 2021). See Wash. Gen. R. 37(i) (noting those reasons “also have historically been associated with improper discrimination in jury selection”).

[19] See Sanchez, 485 Mass. at 501-02.

[20] Id. at 517 (Lowy, J., concurring). See Commonwealth v. Ortega, 480 Mass. 603, 607-08 (2018); Commonwealth v. Robertson, 480 Mass. 383, 397 (2018); Commonwealth v. Jones, 477 Mass. 307, 325-26 (2017).

Brian A. Wilson is a Lecturer and Clinical Instructor within the Criminal Law Clinical Program at Boston University School of Law and supervisor of its Prosecutor Clinic. He serves as a Special Assistant District Attorney in Norfolk County, where he previously spent 17 years as an appellate and Superior Court trial prosecutor. He is a graduate of Emory University and Boston University School of Law, and is a member of the Boston Bar Association.


ABA Formal Opinion 497

Woolf_JeffreyNewhouse_Martinby Jeffrey D. Woolf and Martin Newhouse

Legal Analysis

On February 10, 2021, the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility of the American Bar Association (ABA) issued Formal Opinion 497 (Opinion) entitled “Conflicts Involving Materially Adverse Interests.”  As its title indicates, the Opinion attempts to define for practitioners what interests can be “materially adverse” when determining whether a conflict of interest exists under ABA Model Rules 1.9(a) (which addresses conflicts of interest between a current client and a former client on the same or a “substantially related matter”) and 1.18(c) (which addresses conflicts of interest between a current client and a prospective client on the same or a “substantially related matter”). Unlike ABA Model Rule 1.7 (the general conflict of interest rule), both Model Rules 1.9 and 1.18 use the “materially adverse” terminology when discussing conflicts of interests.

This article summarizes the Opinion and discusses other instances of potentially materially adverse interests that the Opinion does not cover, but of which practitioners should nevertheless be aware.

Model Rule 1.9(a) speaks to a conflict of interest that exists where a current client seeks representation in “the same or a substantially related matter in which the current client’s “interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client.”  (emphasis added.)  Model Rule 1.18(c) prohibits representing “a client with interests materially adverse to those of [a] prospective client.” (emphasis added.)  As noted, the Opinion addresses some, but not all, of the issues raised by the term and the meaning of “materially adverse interests” as it appears in these rules, and how the phrase should be construed in the two rules.

First, the Opinion reviews the origins of the “materially adverse” standard and notes that “material adverseness” does not reach situations where the representation of a current client may pose a general harm to economic or financial interests “without some specific tangible harm.”  Citing Zerger & Mauer LLP v. City of Greenwood, 751 F.3d 928 (8th Cir. 2014), the Opinion notes that a fact-specific analysis is required to determine “whether the current representation may cause legal, financial or other identifiable detriment to the former client.” Id. at 933.

It then addresses three specific types of situations where “materially adverseness” can be found under Model Rule 1.9(a): (a) suing or negotiating against a former client; (b) attacking the lawyer’s own prior work for the former client; and (c) examining a former client in a deposition or trial.  Summaries of the Opinion’s treatment of each of these follows.

Suing or Negotiating Against a Former Client.

Absent written consent by the former client, suing a former client or defending a new client against a claim by a former client on the same or a substantially related matter is prohibited, as is negotiating against a former client in the same or a substantially related transactional matter.  Unfortunately, the Opinion does not address what is meant by “substantially related,” a subject that has spawned much litigation.

Attacking the Lawyer’s Own Prior Work.

Examples of attacking the lawyer’s own prior work include challenging a patent that the lawyer previously obtained for a former client, or challenging, on behalf of a new client, a real estate restrictive covenant that the lawyer previously drafted for the seller of the land.

Examining a Former Client.

Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) prohibits a lawyer from using information “relating to the representation of a former client to the disadvantage of the former client,” lawyer unless the information has become “generally known.”  Even where the information has become known, however, the lawyer may still have a conflict of interest under Model Rule 1.9 in examining the former client, if the former client’s interests are “materially adverse” to the current client and the current matter is “substantially related” to the prior matter.  Lawyers should be aware that courts have sometimes found “material adverseness” when a lawyer proposes to examine a former client, even where no information from the prior representation will be used.  For example, in Illaraza v. Hovensa, LLC, 2012 WL 115446 (D. V.I. Mar. 31, 2012), at *6-10, a lawyer who had previously represented a company’s employee-manager in a criminal case was disqualified from later representing plaintiffs in a wrongful discharge action against their former employer, where the plaintiffs contended that the employee-manager had defamed them.  The court rejected the lawyer’s promises not to use confidential information against the former client (employee-manager) and the offer not to cross-examine her former client on any topics where the lawyer had confidential information.

Matters Not Addressed in the Opinion.

Unfortunately, the Opinion does not address several types of material adverseness that frequently arise and raise unresolved issues.  Among these is the “positional conflict,” referenced in Comment [24] to Model Rule 1.7.  Suppose you concentrate in a particular area of law (e.g., franchise or landlord-tenant litigation) where you may represent a franchisor (or a landlord) in one case and a franchisee (or a tenant) in another case.  As long as you are not litigating against a current or former client, or challenging your own prior results in a previous case, then you might think there is no conflict of interest.  In fact, even if you advocate a position in one case that is contrary to a position you previously advocated in another case, Comment [24] says that this does not automatically create a conflict of interest.  However, if the position you take may create legal precedent that is “likely to seriously weaken the position taken on behalf of the other client,” then you may have a conflict of interest.  (Examples include advocating for a precedent that changes the interpretation of a law or regulation or a burden of proof.) Comment [24] concludes with the warning: “If there is significant risk of material limitation, then absent informed consent of the affected clients, the lawyer must refuse one of the representations or withdraw from one or both matters.”

Another type of conflict, not discussed in the Opinion, is the so-called “playbook” conflict, where a lawyer may be disqualified because the lawyer knows the former client’s legal or business “playbook” or strategy.  In Nasdaq, Inc. v. Miami Int’l. Holdings, 2018 WL 6171819 (D. N.J. 2018), a case mentioned in the Opinion but not discussed for this purpose, the court disqualified Fish & Richardson from representing the defendants in pending litigation because its Boston office had, over seven years before, represented Nasdaq in patent applications, even though the Boston office had been walled off from the pending litigation.  In addition to finding a substantial relationship between the present litigation and the past transactional work, the court said that Fish & Richardson knew and had shaped Nasdaq’s internal IP and patent strategy.  Weighing the applicable factors to determine whether disqualification was warranted,[1] the court concluded that, on balance, disqualification was appropriate.

One of the earliest cases in which a lawyer was disqualified for knowing the former client’s litigation philosophy, methods, and procedures is Gray v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 191 N.J. Super. 590, 486 A.2d 721 (1983).  There, the lawyer had worked for about twenty-one years as outside counsel, defending the company’s insureds in personal injury litigation.  While the lawyer claimed he “was never made privy to any confidential or proprietary information of” the insurance company and never “receive[d] any information “regarding the administration of various of defendant’s business operations,” the insurer successfully argued that his knowledge of “its claims and litigation philosophy and its methods and procedure in handling of defending claims and litigation” was “confidential and proprietary information of” the insurer.  The court found that the lawyer “necessarily became familiar with such useful information as the strengths and weaknesses of this corporate client’s decision makers [and] their attitude towards settlement.”  Accordingly, the lawyer and his firm were disqualified from representing the plaintiff in that case.  Although not discussed in Gray because it predates the ABA Model Rules, this “playbook information” may be a subset of “confidential information referenced in Comment [3] to Model Rule 1.9, which says in pertinent part:

Matters are “substantially related” for purposes of this Rule if . . . there otherwise is a substantial risk that confidential factual information as would normally have been obtained in the prior representation would materially advance the client’s position in the subsequent matter. . . .  In the case of an organizational client, general knowledge of the client’s policies and practices ordinarily will not preclude a subsequent representation; on the other hand, knowledge of specific facts gained in a prior representation that are relevant to the matter in question ordinarily will preclude such a representation.  A conclusion about the possession of such information may be based on the nature of the services the lawyer provided the former client and information that would in ordinary practice be learned by a lawyer providing such services.  (Emphasis added).

Accordingly, an in-house lawyer or an outside counsel who formerly had regularly represented a client should be wary of undertaking a representation that could be characterized as relying  on the lawyer’s knowledge of unique or confidential information of the former client in suing the former client.

Materially Adverse to a Prospective Client.

Almost the entire Opinion is devoted to conflicts with former clients.  It does, however, discuss one example of materially adversity toward a prospective client, In re Carpenter, 863 N.W.2d 223 (N.D. 2015).  In that case an individual consulted the lawyer about a matter adverse to the Christian Science Church of Boston. The prospective client had discovered that mineral rights to land in North Dakota had been left by a decedent to the Church and hoped for a fee in bringing it to the Church’s attention.  After declining the representation, the lawyer took the same information to the Church himself and offered to represent the Church with respect to the mineral rights.  This was found to be “materially adverse to the prospective client’s interests.”

Conclusion

The Opinion concludes by noting that, even if a current representation is “materially adverse” to the interests of a former or a prospective client and the matters are “substantially related,” it may still be possible to represent the current client.  However, that will require informed consent, confirmed in writing, by the former or prospective client.  Importantly, however, that consent does not in itself waive the lawyer’s obligations to maintain the confidentiality of all information gained from the prior representation of the former client or the consultation with a prospective client.  For that, the Opinion notes that the lawyer must obtain a separate informed consent, also confirmed in writing, under Model Rule 1.6.

It is important to note, in considering whether a separate consent under Rule 1.6 is required, that while the Massachusetts version of Rule 1.6(a) is restricted to “confidential information related to the representation of [the] client,” ABA Model Rule 1.6(a) refers more broadly to “information related to the representation of [the] client.”  The prudent practitioner would be well advised to take a more expansive view of what information requires “informed consent,” particularly if the lawyer practices outside of Massachusetts or if the client is located outside of Massachusetts in a jurisdiction that has adopted the broader language of the ABA Model Rule (such as, e.g., Rhode Island).

Finally, because, as discussed above, the Opinion does not identify all instances of “material adversity,” ethical practice requires a lawyer not to rely entirely on the Opinion.  A lawyer should also be familiar not only with the omitted examples discussed above, but, as importantly, with the court and disciplinary decisions in the jurisdictions in the which the lawyer is active. These, along with the Opinion, should guide the lawyer on this issue.

[1] Citing Wyeth v. Abbott Labs, 692 F. Supp. 2d 453, 459 (D. N.J. 2010), the NASDAQ Court said it should consider the following factors in determining whether disqualification is warranted: (1) prejudice to the former client; (2) prejudice to the new client; (3) whether the law firms representation of the former client in the former matter has allowed the new client to gain access to any confidential information relevant to this case; (4) “the cost—in terms of both time and money—“for the new client to retain new counsel; (5) “the complexity of the issues in the case and the time it would take new counsel to acquaint themselves with the facts and issues”; (6) “which party, if either, was responsible for creating the conflict.”

Jeffrey D. Woolf is an Assistant General Counsel to the Board of Bar Overseers and is a member of the BBA Ethics Committee.

Martin J. Newhouse, President of the New England Legal Foundation, is a member of the SJC Clients’ Security Board and BBA Ethics Committee.


Secretly Recording Public Officials: Challenges to the Massachusetts Wiretap Act

FerchResized

by Ryan E. Ferch

Legal Analysis

The proliferation of electronic recording devices and media sharing platforms has drastically changed our daily interactions and views about privacy. Perhaps nowhere is this effect more apparent than in civilians’ recordings of public officials, in particular, law enforcement officers. The publication of these recordings raises profound issues about racial and ethnic disparities and public accountability, the effectiveness of police training and community policing strategies, the risk of violence law enforcement officers face in the performance of their duties, and society’s treatment of the mentally ill, among others.

Massachusetts courts and the First Circuit have grappled with the nexus between electronic recordings and rights protected by the First Amendment since the enactment of the Massachusetts wiretap statute, G.L. c. 272, § 99 (“Section 99”), in 1968. But until Project Veritas Action Fund v. Rollins, 982 F.3d 813 (1st Cir. 2020), no court had addressed squarely whether secret recordings are protected by the First Amendment. In Project Veritas, the First Circuit concluded that Section 99 violated the First Amendment in one specific circumstance: as applied to the statute’s criminalization of “secret, nonconsensual audio recording of police officers discharging their official duties in public space.” Project Veritas, 982 F.3d at 844.

Less than six months after Project Veritas, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) in Curtatone v. Barstool Sports, Inc., No. SJC-13027, 2021 WL 2408015 (June 14, 2021), also addressed Section 99 in the context of a recording of a public official. Although Curtatone did not delve into the constitutionality of the statute, the SJC held that a recording made openly and with the speaker’s knowledge was not a “secret recording” even though it was obtained by false pretenses.

Prior Decisions on the First Amendment and What Is “Secret”    

Section 99 provides in relevant part that it is a crime to intentionally, secretly record, or attempt to record without a warrant—i.e., “to intercept”—a wire or oral communication without permission of all participants. G.L. c. 272, §99 B(4).[1] Thus, prior to Project Veritas, Section 99 was interpreted to criminalize all non-consensual, surreptitious recordings regardless of any reasonable expectation of privacy by the recorded party. See Commonwealth v. Hyde, 434 Mass. 594, 599-600 (2001) (Section 99 is “intended … strictly to prohibit all secret recordings by members of the public, including recordings of police officers or other public officials interacting with members of the public, when made without their permission or knowledge”). Foreshadowing Project Veritas, however, the dissent in Hyde cautioned that such a reading of Section 99 “threaten[ed] the ability of the press—print and electronic—to perform its constitutional role of watchdog.” Id. at 613 (Marshall, C.J., dissenting).

The requirement in Section 99 that all parties to a recorded communication must consent is colloquially referred to as “two-party consent.” Unlike most states’ wiretap laws, Section 99 does not provide an exception to the consent requirement for parties who have no reasonable expectation of privacy. See Project Veritas, 982 F.3d at 817, 840. Although nonconsensual audio recordings without a warrant generally violate Section 99, the SJC has also held that “actual knowledge of the recording” by the party being recorded is sufficient, and affirmative authorization or express consent is not required to avoid liability under the statute, Commonwealth v. Jackson, 370 Mass. 502, 507 (1976), even when the party being recorded is a police officer, Hyde, 434 Mass. at 605 (citing Jackson, 370 Mass. at 507).

No prior First Circuit decision—nor any other federal case before Project Veritas—addressed directly whether First Amendment protections extended to secret recordings of public officials, including law enforcement. Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 85 (1st Cir. 2011), for example, rose out of an arrest for openly filming police officers arresting an individual on the Boston Common. There, the First Circuit defined the scope of recording activity that triggers First Amendment protection to include the “right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space.” Id. Similarly, Gericke v. Begin, 753 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2014), addressing the New Hampshire wiretap statute, extended the reasoning of Glik and held that the First Amendment protects the open recording of a police officer conducting a traffic stop. Id. at 2-3, 7. Although limited to open recordings, in Project Veritas the First Circuit observed that these decisions “suppl[y] strong support for the understanding [that First Amendment-protected recording of police] encompass[es] recording even when it is conducted ‘secretly,’ at least as Section 99 uses that term.” Project Veritas, 982 F.3d at 832.

Project Veritas: First Amendment Protects Secret Recording of Police Officers Performing Their Duties in Public

Project Veritas consolidated the appeals of two groups of plaintiffs. The plaintiffs in one appeal (the “Martin plaintiffs”) are civil rights activists who openly record police officers performing their duties in public and who sought declaratory and injunctive relief in their First Amendment challenge to a portion of Section 99. The First Circuit considered their challenge to Section 99 “insofar as it applies to bar the secret, nonconsensual audio recording of police officers discharging their official duties in public places.” Project Veritas, 982 F.3d at 826. The plaintiff of the second appeal, Project Veritas—a national media organization “dedicated to undercover investigative journalism”—challenged the constitutionality of Section 99 on several broader First Amendment grounds: (1) as facially overbroad in its entirety; (2) as applied to the prohibition against the “secret, nonconsensual audio recording of any person who does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in what is recorded”; and (3) as applied to the prohibition against the “secret, nonconsensual audio recording of all government officials discharging their official duties in public spaces.” Id. at 822-24, 840-42. 

Applying intermediate scrutiny,[2] the First Circuit addressed the merits of the Martin plaintiffs’ claim and affirmed that Section 99 was unconstitutional in a narrow and specific set of circumstances: insofar as it imposed an outright ban on “secret recordings” made in “public spaces,” of police officers, during the discharge of their “official functions.” Id. at 827-28. The court determined Section 99 was not narrowly tailored enough to further the government’s legitimate interest in preventing interference with the officers’ ability to do their jobs and in protecting the privacy of citizens. Id. at 836. Instead, Section 99 impermissibly prohibited all secret recording, “notwithstanding the myriad circumstances in which it may play a critical role in informing the public about how the police are conducting themselves, whether by documenting their heroism, dispelling claims of their misconduct, or facilitating the public’s ability to hold them to account for their wrongdoing.” Id. at 835-37.

In balancing the government’s interests, the court recognized that police officers surrender some of their privacy when performing their official functions and then delved into the privacy interests of the variety of citizens who interact with the police—which can include anyone from confidential informants to rape victims, minor victims, and witnesses. Id. at 838-39. As the court recognized, there is inherent tension here—citizens have greater privacy interests at stake than uniformed officers, and notice of recording may help them avoid shame or embarrassment. Id. at 839. Nonetheless, the First Circuit concluded that Section 99’s “blunderbuss prohibitory approach” was too broad to serve the important interests implicated in the Martin plaintiffs’ circumstances, noting that police officers presumably are already careful when having sensitive conversations within earshot of others, and that individuals’ privacy interests are “hardly at their zenith” when speaking to police officers in public. Id. at 837-39.

Justiciability of Pre-Enforcement First Amendment Challenges

The discussion of justiciability in Project Veritas—namely whether the plaintiffs’ pre-enforcement First Amendment claims were ripe—is thorough and a useful guide for future pre-enforcement cases. To determine whether the plaintiffs’ various claims were ripe, the First Circuit applied the two-part test from Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136 (1967), and evaluated: (i) the fitness of the issue for judicial review (in terms of finality, definiteness, and sufficient development of facts) and (ii) the hardship to the parties of withholding adjudication (in terms of creating a direct and immediate dilemma). Project Veritas, 982 F.3d at 825-26. Characterizing the Martin plaintiffs’ single claim as presenting a narrow facial challenge to Section 99 as applied to the secret, nonconsensual audio recording of police officers discharging their official duties in public, the First Circuit concluded the claim presented a purely legal challenge that met Article III’s ripeness demands. Id. at 825-30.  

In contrast, Project Veritas’s as-applied challenges—that Section 99 violates the First Amendment by prohibiting (i) the secret recording of all individuals who have no reasonable expectation of privacy and (ii) the nonconsensual recording of all government officials in their discharge of duties in public space—evidenced “serious ripeness concerns.” Id. at 842-44. Specifically, the court concluded that the disparity between Project Veritas’s proposed secret newsgathering actions and the scope of relief sought was too great to present a well-defined, live, justiciable, pre-enforcement controversy. Id. at 842-43. Importantly, these rulings significantly narrowed the ultimate decision by vacating the lower court’s ruling on the merits that would have allowed the secret recording of any “government official” performing official duties in a public space. Id. at 824, 843-44. Also, the First Circuit affirmed the rejection of Project Veritas’s facial overbreadth claim, which would have invalidated Section 99 in its entirety, noting that Project Veritas “fails to show, as it must, that the unconstitutional applications are ‘substantial’ relative to the extensive range of applications [of Section 99 not challenged as unconstitutional].” Id. at 841. See also id. at 844 (emphasizing “the substantial protection for privacy that [Section 99] provides in contexts far removed from those that concern the need to hold public officials accountable”).  

Project Veritas has sought certiorari review of the First Circuit’s denial of its facial overbreadth challenge and determination of insufficient ripeness as to its as-applied claims. The treatment of this petition will be interesting, as the Supreme Court has never addressed the prohibitions on open or secret recording of law enforcement. See id. at 835.

Curtatone: What Is “Secret Recording” that Constitutes Prohibited “Interception”?

Although Curtatone did not address the constitutionality of Section 99 like Project Veritas, it did involve an actual, discrete recording of a public official. The SJC held that a recording made openly and with consent—even if induced under false pretenses of who was recording the communication—is not a “secret recording” so as to give rise to a cognizable claim of unlawful “interception” within the meaning of Section 99.

In Curtatone, an employee of Barstool Sports, using his real name and affiliation, requested an interview with Joseph Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville. His request was unsuccessful. He then contacted a Somerville official identifying himself as a specific reporter for the Boston Globe and asked to interview Mr. Curtatone. The mayor agreed to that request, believing it to be with the Boston Globe reporter. During the interview, the Barstool Sports employee continuously maintained he was the Boston Globe reporter. Critically, at the beginning of the interview the mayor consented to it being recorded. Barstool Sports later posted the interview on its blog. Slip op. at 4.

The SJC concluded that to violate Section 99, the recording itself that must be “(1) secretly made and (2) without prior authority by all parties” to constitute a prohibited “interception.” Id. at 6. That is, “it is the act of hearing or recording itself that must be concealed to fall within the prohibition against ‘interception’ within [Section 99],” and the “identity of the party recording . . . or, indeed, the truthfulness with which that identity was asserted is irrelevant.” Id. at 8. In short, where the [act of] recording but not the [true] identity of the recorder was known and agreed upon” by the speaker, the recording was not made “secretly.” Id. at 10.

Thus, Curtatone further narrowed the reach of Section 99 by rejecting the mayor’s argument that the recording at issue was secret and violated Section 99 because (a) both parties must provide “actual consent” for a lawful recording, and legally effective consent was not possible to provide where he did not know the true identity of the interviewer; and (b) the Barstool Sports employee secretly heard and recorded the conversation or illegally intercepted the communication because the mayor was falsely led to believe the employee was someone else. Id. at 5. Notably, in rejecting the mayor’s assertion that his privacy rights were violated, the SJC found it “relevant to note that the plaintiff was a mayor of a city with more than 80,000 people, [who] believed he was speaking on the record to a newspaper reporter,” notwithstanding that Section 99 provides no exemption for an individual with no expectation of privacy. Id. at 10.

What’s Next?

Project Veritas and Curtatone raise several questions. For one, how will police interactions with private citizens in public spaces change, if at all, given the new ability to secretly record? Also, given the recognition that citizens retain their privacy interests, will there be efforts to protect the rights of informants, witnesses, and victims of crime? Also, will there be another attempt to expand the scope of permissible recording to other types of government officials performing their duties in public spaces? On this point, the First Circuit recognized that the “First Amendment analysis might be appreciably affected by the type of government official who would be recorded”—an elected official, a school teacher, or a bus driver. Project Veritas, 982 F.3d at 843. Similarly, the SJC’s analysis anticipates that the identity of the public official is critically relevant to determining the applicable privacy interest. And finally, over fifty years since enactment of Section 99, will the Massachusetts Legislature reexamine the wiretap statute in light of the rapid developments in technology and recent court rulings?

[1] In addition to criminal penalties, Section 99 provides a civil cause of action for individuals whose “communications were intercepted, disclosed or used except as permitted or authorized” by Section 99, or whose privacy was so violated. G.L. c. 272, § 99 Q.

[2] “Intermediate scrutiny” requires the determination of whether the law is “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest” and “must leave open ample alternative channels for communication,” but need not be the “least restrictive means of achieving the government’s interests.” Project Veritas, 982 F.3d at 834-36. This procedural issue had not been addressed squarely before in similar First Amendment cases and the First Circuit’s detailed discussion is worth careful review.

Ryan E. Ferch is currently Senior Counsel at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.  Until 2017, as an Assistant Attorney General, he represented the defendants in the Project Veritas and Martin cases.


When Everything Slowed Down: Evaluating the Right to Speedy Trial in a Pandemic

Deakin_106x126Janet L. Sanders_106x126by Hon. David A. Deakin and Hon. Janet L. Sanders

Legal Analysis

The COVID-19 pandemic has halted jury trials in Massachusetts state courts since March 13, 2020. The inability to set a reliable trial date, in turn, has created a logjam of unresolved cases. Between 2017 and 2019, Massachusetts trial courts empaneled an average of 3883 juries each year. See Jury Management Advisory Committee, Report and Recommendations to the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court on the Resumption of Jury Trials in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic, at App. 9, p. 107 (July 31, 2020). It is fair to project that roughly this number of cases will have been added to the courts’ backlog as a result of the moratorium on jury trials for most of 2020 and early 2021. Although there are anecdotal reports of some decline in new indictments and civil filings, the backlog is almost certain to continue to grow in the coming months.  

On the civil side, this backlog means a longer wait for one’s day in court. On the criminal side, the prospect of continued delay is even more serious. With limitations on the availability of jury trials expected to extend well into 2021, requests to dismiss on speedy trial grounds will become more commonplace. This article examines both the constitutional basis for such requests and the implications of the pandemic for Rule 36 motions to dismiss. The article also attempts to shed light on how lawyers and judges should approach the analysis of these issues – particularly the constitutional limitations on delay imposed by a public health emergency.

The Constitutional Analysis

Criminal defendants have rights to a speedy trial under both the United States and Massachusetts Constitutions. See Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972); Commonwealth v. Dirico, 480 Mass. 491 (2018). Under the federal Constitution, the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee the right to a speedy trial. See Barker, 407 U.S. at 515. In Massachusetts, Article 11 similarly and independently protects that same right as a matter of state constitutional law. See Dirico, 480 Mass. at 505, citing Commonwealth v. Butler, 464 Mass. 706, 709 n.5 (2013); Commonwealth v. Gilbert, 366 Mass. 18, 22 (1974). In applying Article 11, Massachusetts courts look to federal precedent interpreting the Sixth Amendment “because the analysis is analogous.” Dirico, 480 Mass. at 505.

Under both the federal and Massachusetts Constitutions, a defendant seeking dismissal for violation of the speedy trial right must show initially “that the interval between accusation and trial has crossed the threshold dividing ordinary from ‘presumptively prejudicial delay.” Dirico, 480 Mass. at 505. This burden, however, “is relatively modest.” Dirico, 480 Mass. at 506. Massachusetts “courts have generally found post accusation delay ‘presumptively prejudicial’ at least as it approaches one year.” Dirico, 480 Mass. at 506, quoting Doggett v. United States, 505 U.S. 647, 652 n.1 (1992).

Upon a finding of presumptively prejudicial delay, both federal and Massachusetts courts then apply Barker’s familiar four-part test. This requires the court to consider: “the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant’s assertion of his right to a speedy trial, and prejudice to the defendant.” Dirico, 480 Mass. at 506, citing Barker, 407 U.S. at 530. Although courts will look to the four-part Barker analysis to resolve speedy trial claims, its application to the extraordinary situation of a global public health emergency raises novel issues.

In calculating the length of the delay, the first Barker factor, courts begin with the date the complaint was first lodged against the defendant. The pandemic is almost certain to add well over a year to the wait for trial for those defendants arrested before its onset. For those arrested during the pandemic, it will add delay of as much as a year or even more.  

The second Barker factor, which looks to the reason for the delay, involves an analysis of the government’s role in creating it. See Dirico, 480 Mass. at 506. Generally, the greater the fault attributed to the government, the more heavily that factor weighs in favor of dismissal. See Dirico, 480 Mass. at 406, citing Butler, 464 Mass. at 716; Doggett, 505 U.S. at 657. The most common application of the second Barker factor is to cases in which the prosecution is responsible for the delay, which is not the case here. Massachusetts courts have not yet had  occasion to apply the Barker analysis to emergency situations. However, two federal courts that have analyzed delays due to public emergencies have held that delays of three and seven weeks resulting from a volcanic eruption and the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, respectively, were excluded from the calculation of elapsed time under the federal Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(8)(A). Each of these cases was limited to an application of the Speedy Trial Act, so neither involved application of the Barker analysis. Moreover, each involved a relatively modest delay caused by a localized emergency. The delay attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, by contrast, will be much longer than the delay in either of these cases and will be experienced throughout the Commonwealth and, to varying degrees, across the country.

In the current situation, in which jury trials have been prohibited in the Commonwealth by order of the Supreme Judicial Court since March 16, 2020, the prosecution is not responsible for delay. Through various orders, the SJC has suspended jury trials because of the health risks they pose to participants. The unavailability of jury trials is thus at least arguably the result of government action. See State v. Labrecque, ___ A.3d___, 2020 WL 5268718 (Vt. Sep. 3, 2020) (delay caused by COVID-19 pandemic attributed to government moratorium on jury trials, despite lack of prosecutorial responsibility). The SJC’s decisions to suspend jury trials may ultimately be deemed to have been entirely reasonable under the circumstances. Defendants, however, will no doubt point to states like Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, where court systems have authorized and undertaken the resumption of jury trials under certain circumstances. See https://www.justia.com/covid-19/50-state-covid-19-resources/court-operations-during-covid-19-50-state-resources/.

Although it is not known to the authors how many jury trials have been conducted in any of these states, how safely they have been carried out, or how each state is measuring safety, defendants in Massachusetts can be expected to argue that the Commonwealth’s more conservative approach is a form of state action that unreasonably deprived them of their due process rights. At least one federal district court has relied on a version of this argument in a habeas corpus petition to order that the state court set a prompt trial date or face dismissal. See Kurtenbach v. Howell, 2020 WL 7695578 (D.S.D. Dec. 28, 2020). In that case, the Court (Kornmann, J.) remarked that “[t]here is no pandemic exception to the Constitution.” Kurtenbach, 2020 WL 7695578 at *5, quoting Carson v. Simon, 978 F.3d 1051, 1060 (8th Cir. 2020). It seems reasonable to forecast that the Supreme Judicial Court will rule that its orders suspending jury trials were necessary in light of the public health emergency, but this is by no means certain. Perhaps equally uncertain is the resolution of this question by federal courts, which may ultimately be asked to review the SJC’s actions.

The third Barker factor is the defendant’s assertion of his speedy trial right. Although this necessarily entails a fact-specific inquiry, defendants can be expected to argue – not without basis – that an assertion of the speedy trial right in a period when jury trials are suspended is the quintessential exercise in futility. That the Supreme Judicial Court might accept such an argument, however, says little about how it will resolve the issue. Just as a criminal defendant  should perhaps not be expected to assert a right futilely, the prosecution cannot be faulted for not proceeding with a trial that by order of the SJC cannot be conducted. This balance of blamelessness merely underscores the novelty of applying the Barker analysis in a time of unprecedented suspension of jury trials.

In evaluating the fourth Barker factor – the extent to which a defendant has been prejudiced by the delay – courts must consider the interests protected by the speedy trial right. See Dirico, 480 Mass. at 507, quoting Barker, 407 U.S. at 532. These are to minimize “oppressive pretrial detention,” the anxiety of the accused, and prejudice to the defense. Dirico, 480 Mass. at 507. The defendant bears the burden of establishing prejudice. Dirico, 480 Mass. at 505. The question of prejudice is likely to be the one on which most speedy trial motions brought to address pandemic-related delay will turn. That is because the length of delay alone rarely leads to dismissal. See infra. This is particularly so when the delay is caused by a global public health emergency. That said, and as always, if a defendant can show that the delay has compromised the defense’s ability to contest the Commonwealth’s evidence, the fourth Barker factor could well justify dismissal.

A defendant who has been unable to post bail, or has been held without bail based on a finding of dangerousness under G. L. c. 276, § 58A, certainly has a basis to argue that prejudice has resulted from the delay of the trial. The argument would be especially powerful under Dirico’s “oppressive pretrial detention” prong if the prosecution’s case has weakened over time, or if the length of pretrial detention approaches the length of the sentence that the defendant likely would receive if convicted.      

In dicta in its June 20, 2020, decision in Commonwealth v. Lougee, 485 Mass. 70, 84 (2020), the Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged the looming due process issue presented by suspending jury trials. The Lougee Court observed that the delay caused by the pandemic and the Court’s orders responding to it had “yet to approach the length of delay that would trigger a due process analysis.” Left unanswered, however, is how long a delay would amount to a due process violation. Unsurprisingly, there is no case law that analyzes the issue in the context of a protracted public health emergency. And the reported cases analyzing the requirements of procedural and substantive due process provide the courts with only the most general guidance.

Substantive due process forbids the government from acting in ways that “shock[] the conscience” or interfere with rights “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 746 (1987). The standard of review applied by a reviewing court under substantive due process analysis varies depending on the nature of the right at stake. See Aime v. Commonwealth, 414 Mass. 667, 673 (1993), citing Salerno, 481 U.S. at 748-51. With respect to “fundamental” rights – and surely that would include the right to a speedy trial – courts “must examine carefully the importance of the governmental interests advanced and the extent to which they are served” by the challenged governmental order or regulation.  Id.  Courts typically will uphold those orders or statutes that are “narrowly tailored to further a legitimate and compelling governmental interest.’” Id.    

Thus, courts are likely to analyze a state moratorium on jury trials as a speedy trial issue, the outer limits of which are set by substantive due process doctrine. That is, the United States and Massachusetts constitutions surely will not tolerate a Barker analysis producing a result that “shocks the conscience.” It is conceivable, therefore, that a pandemic could last long enough – years, for example – that the delay itself could constitute prejudice, even if individual defendants could not establish prejudice under the more conventional analysis of Barker’s fourth prong.

Stating this proposition, of course, does not answer the central question of how long a pandemic-necessitated delay the United States and Massachusetts constitutions will tolerate. The analysis merely frames the question. There are not yet any reported Massachusetts trial court decisions addressing the application of either the Barker or general due process analysis to trial delays caused by the pandemic. At the time of publication, several federal district courts had been presented with speedy trial challenges based, at least in part, on delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. See, e.g., United States v. Tapp, 2020 WL 6483141 (E.D. LA November 4, 2020); United States v. Woolard, 2020 WL 6469952 (W.D. WA November 3, 2020); United States v. Zhukov, 2020 WL 6302298 (E.D.N.Y. October 27, 2020). None, however, has dismissed a case on speedy trial grounds related to the pandemic. Cf. United States v. Smith, 460 F. Supp. 3d 981, 984 (E.D. Cal. 2020) (“Almost every court faced with the question of whether general COVID-19 considerations justify an ends-of-justice continuance and exclusion of time has arrived at the same answer: yes.”). But cf. United States v. McCullough, 2020 WL 6689353 (W.D. Tenn. November 12, 2020) (travel restrictions imposed by pandemic do not justify prosecution’s request for delay). Because there is no closely analogous case law, courts will be inclined to turn to conventional speedy trial precedent, which, unfortunately, provides only loose analogies to the current public health emergency.

A review of Massachusetts speedy trial cases reveal none in which the length of the delay alone – without prosecutorial fault – has resulted in dismissal. Thus, in Commonwealth v. Butler, 464 Mass. 706 (2013), for example, the Supreme Judicial Court held that a delay of twelve years between the issuance of a district court complaint in 1991 and the defendant’s eventual trial on a rape charge in 2003 did not require dismissal, even though the Commonwealth’s negligence factored into the delay. Similarly, in Commonwealth v. Wallace, 472 Mass. 56 (2015), the SJC considered a delay of nine years between charge and trial in the case of two co-defendants. The Court concluded that the delay did not warrant dismissal in the case of the co-defendant who had fled to avoid prosecution, but did warrant dismissal of the case against the co-defendant who was held in federal custody for seven years before prosecutors moved to rendite him for trial. These decisions suggest that, because two of the Barker factors – the  cause(s) of the delay and the defendant’s assertion of his speedy trial rights – focus on the conduct of the parties, the mere fact of even protracted delay, without more, is unlikely to trigger dismissal.

Even if extended delay does not result in a due process violation and resulting dismissal, however, it has and will continue to affect the bail status of defendants held awaiting trial. On the one hand, the Supreme Judicial Court has made clear that the court must take into account the risks posed by COVID-19 if the bail determination could result in the defendant’s detention. See CPCS v. Trial Court, 484 Mass. 431, 435 (2020) (COVID risk constitutes changed circumstance for purposes of bail review); Christie v. Commonwealth, 484 Mass. 397, 401 (2020) (error for trial judge not to reconsider motion for stay of sentence in light of pandemic). Cf. Commonwealth v. Nash, 486  Mass. 394, 406 (2020) (“Our objective in Christie was to reduce temporarily the prison and jail populations, in a safe and responsible manner, through the judicious use of stays of execution of sentences pending appeal.”). On the other hand, the SJC has actually extended the period during which a defendant can be held without bail based on dangerousness. Although  G.L. c 276, § 58A provides that a defendant cannot be detained without bail for longer than 180 days, the SJC has held that the delay caused by the moratorium on jury trials is excluded from the calculation of that time period. See Lougee, 485 Mass. at 84-85. What is clear, however, is that recent SJC precedent establishes that a court’s bail decision during the COVID-19 pandemic should be made with special care, particularly given the heightened risk of contagion in the correctional context and the likelihood that trial for that defendant will be an unusually long way off.  

The Rule 36 Analysis

Primarily a rule of case management, Mass. R. Crim. P. 36 overlaps with but is “wholly separate” from constitutional speedy trial analysis. Dirico, 480 Mass. at 504, quoting Commonwealth v. Lauria, 411 Mass. 63, 67 (1991). Rule 36 dictates dismissal as a matter of  presumption if the defendant is not tried within one year of arraignment. Dirico, 480 Mass at.497. The rule, however, excludes delay that results from a number of specified occurrences. See Mass. R. Crim. P. 36(b)(2)(A)-(H). The Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing that the delay in question is excluded from the Rule 36 calculation. Dirico, 480 Mass. at 497, citing Commonwealth v. Spaulding, 411 Mass. 503, 504 (1991). Among the express exclusions in Rule 36 are periods of time about which the court finds that “the ends of justice served by granting of the continuance outweigh the best interests of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial.” Mass. R. Crim. P. 36(b)(2)(F).

The Supreme Judicial Court has also discerned in Mass. R. Crim. P. 36 a common-law basis for exclusion. Even if delay is not expressly excluded by the provisions of Rule 36(b)(2), it still may be excluded from the Rule 36 calculation if the defendant “acquiesced in, was responsible for, or benefitted from the delay . . . .” Dirico, 480 Mass. at 498-499. This basis for exclusion is rooted in a defendant’s “obligation . . . to ‘press their case through the criminal justice system.’” Commonwealth v. Graham, 480 Mass. 516, 524 (2018), quoting Lauria, 411 Mass. at 68. The precise limitations of this doctrine remain both fact-specific and surprisingly complex.

That said, certain principles have emerged from recent cases. First – wholly apart from the express exclusions in Rule 36(b)(2)(F) – if “a defendant agrees for the first time to schedule a previously unscheduled event, there is no ‘continuance’ or ‘delay’ that can be excluded under rule 36.” Graham, 480 Mass. at 533. Second, “unanticipated events that the parties . . . agree to work around” are excluded from the Rule 36 computation. Graham, 480 Mass. at 533.

In its March 13, 2020 order, the Supreme Judicial Court propounded a statewide finding under Rule 36(b)(2)(F) that the indefinite postponement of jury trials “serve[s] the ends of justice and outweigh[s] the best interests of the  public and the criminal defendant in a speedy trial . . . .” See Lougee, 485 Mass. at 72 (SJC’s statewide order constitutes finding under Rule 36(b)(2)(F)). This appears to be the first time that the SJC has made a finding – under either Rule 36 or constitutional principles – applicable to all criminal cases pending in the Commonwealth. That it was the SJC that entered the finding in the context of a global pandemic, however, makes it unlikely that a subsequent SJC would invalidate it, at least as an interpretation of Rule 36. In this context – unlike that of the speedy trial analysis – federal courts are not likely to be called upon to review the SJC’s interpretation of a Massachusetts rule of criminal procedure.

Conclusion

A more prolonged suspension of the jury-trial right in the Commonwealth will eventually trigger a due process analysis. That would require courts to determine at what point continued delay of an individual jury trial either prejudices the defendant – under the Barker analysis – or “shocks the conscience,” as prohibited by substantive due process. The COVID-19 pandemic is a nearly unprecedented public health emergency, and one about which no one alive today can draw on experience. The constitutional speedy trial analysis is familiar and predictable; its application to the extraordinary situation that currently prevails is anything but.

David A. Deakin is an associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. Before taking the bench in 2019, Judge Deakin was deputy chief and acting chief of the Criminal Bureau in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. 

Janet L. Sanders is a Superior Court Justice. Before her appointment in 2001, she  worked as a criminal defense lawyer and then served on the district court beginning in 1995.  


Chief Justice Gants and the Power of Concurrence

by Tad Heuer

Legal Analysis

Judges are often remembered for either their landmark opinions or their incisive dissents, and Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote both. But over his twelve terms on the Supreme Judicial Court, he wielded adroitly a third option, more frequently than any of his fellow justices. On forty-three occasions — first as an Associate Justice and then as Chief — Justice Gants authored a concurrence.

Concurrences are a legal curiosity. Unlike a dissent, where a judge explains why his colleagues got it wrong, a concurring judge believes the opposite: that his colleagues got it right. Moreover, with each SJC justice writing roughly the same number of majority decisions each term, a concurring justice is voluntarily taking on additional and avoidable work. Yet it is precisely because concurrences are arguably unnecessary that they are so valuable. Concurrences can signal the potential limits of the majority opinion, indicate whether the majority reached the right result but for the wrong reason, or warn where a statute — while clear — creates an unintended result. And when used wisely, and unencumbered by the formal strictures of a majority opinion, a concurrence can illuminate a judge’s perspective on how the law could be more fair and more just.

With a nod to his beloved Boston Red Sox, Chief Justice Gants’ penchant for concurrences is best illustrated by turning to the SJC’s own box score. Chief Justice Gants served with fourteen other justices during his time on the Court and authored 260 opinions, 17 dissents, and 43 concurrences (including six instances when he added further nuance by concurring in part and dissenting in part). While Chief Justice Gants dissented on average about as frequently as his fellow justices (8% of his decisional writings, versus an average of 5% for his colleagues), 13% of his decisional writings were concurrences, compared with only 5% of those of his colleagues. With an average of nearly four concurrences per term, Chief Justice Gants nearly doubled the average of his next closest colleague, while more than tripling the one-concurrence-per-justice-per-term average of his colleagues generally. In raw numbers, he wrote 17 more concurrences than his next-closest colleague, Justice Robert Cordy, who served for four more years than Chief Justice Gants. Indeed, as of the time of his passing he had penned more concurrences than eight of his 14 colleagues combined.

While Chief Justice Gants concurred at least once in every year on the Court, his concurrences became more frequent in recent years with six each in 2017 and 2018, and eight in 2020. Yet he had a knack for attracting company. Of his 43 concurrences, only eleven were on his own: Thirteen brought along one other justice, sixteen brought along two other justices, and one even brought along three others. With 30 concurrences in criminal cases and 13 in civil, his topics ranged widely from homicide instructions and trial procedure to child custody and spendthrift trusts. But examining why he concurred so frequently provides a window into the jurist Chief Justice Gants was.

He used concurrences to point out where the Legislature may wish to revise statutes that compelled counterintuitive results that he perceived as unintentional. In a pair of cases involving the state wiretap statute, Commonwealth v. Tavares, 459 Mass. 289 (2011) and Commonwealth v. Burgos, 470 Mass. 133 (2014), he discussed the problematic practical consequences arising from the statutory requirement of a “connection with organized crime” as a prerequisite for its use, noting:

electronic surveillance is unavailable to investigate and prosecute the hundreds of shootings and killings committed by street gangs in Massachusetts, which are among the most difficult crimes to solve and prosecute using more traditional means of investigation.

“If the Legislature wishes to avoid this result,” he suggested, “it should amend [the statute] to delete those words.” Tavares at 305; Burgos at 149. Similarly, in Commonwealth v. LeBlanc, 475 Mass. 820 (2016), Chief Justice Gants used his concurrence to encourage the Legislature to harmonize contradictory statutory provisions (about when a driver needed to remain at the scene after causing an accident), while in Commonwealth v. Almonor, 482 Mass. 35 (2019) he wrote separately to “underscore the need for the Legislature to give careful consideration to amending G. L. c. 276, § 2B, to permit warrants to be applied for and approved remotely through reliable electronic means.” Id. at 69.

He used concurrences to signal the direction he felt the common law should go. This approach was most prominent in his four-member concurrence in Commonwealth v. Brown, 477 Mass. 805 (2017). In that case, the Court unanimously agreed that the felony-murder rule (permitting a conviction of murder in the first degree for the commission of an underlying violent felony resulting in a death) was constitutional. Chief Justice Gants nonetheless saw the opportunity through concurrence to narrow prospectively the scope of the rule to require actual – not constructive – malice inferred from the underlying felony:

When our experience with the common law of felony-murder liability demonstrates that it can yield a verdict of murder in the first degree that is not consonant with justice, and where we recognize that it was derived from legal principles we no longer accept and contravenes two fundamental principles of our criminal jurisprudence, we must revise that common law so that it accords with those fundamental principles and yields verdicts that are just and fair in light of the defendant’s criminal conduct.

Id. at 836.

This attention to ensuring that the development of the common law reflect the practical reality of the contemporary world pervaded other concurrences as well. In Commonwealth v. Berry, 466 Mass. 763 (2014), then-Justice Gants concurred to identify “an apparent inconsistency in our common law of homicide that we should confront when the issue next arises, i.e., whether a defendant’s state of mind must be considered in determining whether a murder is committed with extreme atrocity or cruelty.” Id. at 778. And in Miller v. Miller, 478 Mass. 642 (2018), involving a contentious child custody dispute, Chief Justice Gants concurred to argue that in future, the Court should consider discarding what he termed the “artificially binary decision-making framework” cobbled together from prior cases, and establish a “single, uniform standard — the best interests of the child — to be applied to all [custody] removal cases,” id. at 659.  He expressed concern that the existing “formalistic approach” could have “serious consequences for the parties involved.” Id. at 662.

And in a technical mortgage foreclosure case, U.S. Bank National Association v. Schumacher, 467 Mass. 421 (2014), then-Justice Gants’ concurrence was arguably more important than the majority opinion. The Schumacher Court held that because the statutory pre-foreclosure requirement (notice and a cure period) was not part of the exercise of the power of sale and foreclosure, failure to comply with the statute could not be raised as a defense in a post-foreclosure eviction action. Justice Gants agreed that the statute controlled the facts of the case, but wrote separately to express his concern about the “practical consequences of this opinion.” Id. at 431. His concurrence laid out his view of when it was appropriate to raise the statute as a defense: if the failure to comply with the statute “rendered the foreclosure so fundamentally unfair that [the defendant] is entitled to affirmative relief, specifically the setting aside of the foreclosure sale.” Id. at 433. This “fundamental unfairness” standard is now applied routinely in post-foreclosure actions.

He used concurrences to provide guidance to the lower courts. Sometimes his concurrences signaled that lower courts should be cautious about applying a majority decision too broadly. For example, he concurred in Flagg v. AliMed, Inc., 466 Mass. 23 (2013), primarily to “emphasize the limited scope of [the majority] holding, because I fear that ‘associational discrimination’ might otherwise be interpreted more broadly than the court’s opinion intends.” Id. at 39. Similarly, he concurred in Commonwealth v. Lopez, 458 Mass. 383 (2010), to clarify the “distinction between a search of a home and entry into a home, which, although it does not affect the outcome of this case, may have bearing on the validity of consent in other search cases.” Id. at 399.

In other instances, his concurrences provided frameworks for how lower courts might evaluate rapidly-changing areas of the law, particularly involving technology. These ranged from offering detailed thoughts on “how electronic automatic license plate reader data could be used by law enforcement consistent with constitutional rights to a reasonable expectation of privacy” (Commonwealth v. McCarthy, 484 Mass. 493, 512-13 (2020)), to clarifying his view that the law provides no “safe harbor to conduct a search incident to arrest of text messages or electronic mail messages” found on a cell phone (Commonwealth v. Phifer, 463 Mass. 790, 799 (2012)). Chief Justice Gants used concurrences to encourage his former trial court colleagues — faced with applying existing laws to new and novel factual scenarios — to think thoughtfully about how the Court might view those efforts on appeal.

He used concurrences to give voice to both the challenges and humanity inherent in the complex work of getting justice right. In Schumacher, he began his concurrence by acknowledging that “many mortgage borrowers who will claim such violations will not have the benefit of legal representation, and that our jurisprudence in this area of law is difficult for even attorneys to understand.” 467 Mass. at 431. In Commonwealth v. Williams, 481 Mass. 443 (2019), concurring in a case involving race and jury selection, Chief Justice Gants admitted that from his own experience as a trial judge “there are times, with the benefit of additional thought and the wisdom of hindsight, in which a judge will recognize that a discussion with a juror could have been handled more artfully.” Id. at 458. And he concurred to urge the Court to ensure that its decisions would be understood by the public as being consonant with justice. As he wrote in his concurrence in Commonwealth v. Johnson, 461 Mass. 1 (2009), “[w]e neither ensure that we do justice in a case of murder in the first degree nor ensure the public’s confidence that justice is done where we fail to address on the merits an issue that was never fairly considered because the underlying facts were mistakenly presented by the court on direct appeal.” Id. at 9.

Perhaps most importantly, he used concurrences to highlight what he saw as unfairness. In Commonwealth v. Baez, 480 Mass. 328 (2018), he concurred “to encourage the Legislature to consider the wisdom and fairness of the mandatory minimum aspect of [certain] enhanced sentences, especially where the predicate offenses were committed when the defendant was a juvenile.” Id. at 332. In Deal v. Massachusetts Parole Board, 484 Mass. 457 (2020), he used his concurrence to levy forceful criticism of the failure of the Parole Board to provide “meaningful individualized consideration” to the “distinctive attributes of youth offenders” when making parole decisions. While concurring in the denial of parole because such guidance did not exist at the time of Deal’s hearing, he warned that in future, “we would expect meaningful individualized findings that are far less conclusory and perfunctory than here.” Id. at 470. While only a concurrence, it signaled a disapproval for the Parole Board to ignore at its peril. And it was not only litigants whom Chief Justice Gants sought to protect from unfairness. In Commonwealth v. Leiva, 484 Mass. 766 (2020), he agreed with the Court’s revision of the protocols governing the conduct of defense counsel when their clients intend to testify falsely, but took issue with the majority’s “assumption . . . that defense attorneys will not abide by their ethical obligations to the court when hard decisions have to be made. . . .” He concurred to emphasize that such an assumption “is unfair to the defense bar.” Id. at 798.

Chief Justice Gants concurred up to the very end. Indeed, his last concurrence came in Commonwealth v. Long, 485 Mass. 711 (2020), released just days after his passing. Long addressed the charged issue of racial profiling in traffic stops, and although unanimous, generated multiple concurring opinions. Chief Justice Gants used his four-paragraph concurrence in Long to do three different things. First, he wrote as a justice, to emphasize that the motive of a law enforcement officer matters, and to reiterate that an officer cannot conduct an “inventory” search as a pretext for a more invasive “investigatory” search. Id. at 736. In so doing, he signaled that he would be watching closely in future cases for whether form was being exalted over substance. Second, he wrote as a colleague, explaining why he agreed in part with the more expansive concurring opinion of a colleague, but felt it unnecessary for the Court to reach certain additional constitutional questions identified therein. Id. And third, he wrote as the Chief Justice, in an effort to prevent intramural disagreements over the details from clouding the legal importance of the majority opinion in the eyes of the public: “[D]espite our jurisprudential differences reflected in the various opinions in this case, the court is unanimous in concluding that a motor vehicle stop that arises from racial profiling is unconstitutional . . . .” Id. This keen awareness of the subtle power of the concurrence—from the legal to the practical—demonstrates Chief Justice Gants’ acumen for the form at its finest.

In 1822, Thomas Jefferson complained in a letter to Supreme Court Justice William Johnson that the trend of the collective majority opinion disguised “whether every judge has taken the trouble of understanding the case, of investigating it minutely, and of forming an opinion for himself, instead of pinning it on another’s sleeve.” Chief Justice Gants was never at risk of such remonstration: his numerous concurrences reveal a justice who took the trouble to understand cases, who investigated cases minutely, and who took seriously his responsibility to offer the bench, bar, Legislature, and general public his own insights on how to do better justice.

Tad Heuer is a partner at Foley Hoag LLP, where his administrative law practice focuses on appellate litigation and on advising clients regarding complex federal, state, and local regulatory matters ranging from land use to energy.  He clerked for Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall during the 2006-07 term, and is a member of the Boston Bar Journal Board of Editors.


Aligning Science and Law in the Realm of Eyewitness Identification Evidence

by Eric A. Haskell*

Legal Analysis

This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Office of the Attorney General.  Opinions of the Attorney General are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority.

On February 6, 2009, eight days after then-associate Justice Ralph Gants joined the Supreme Judicial Court, the court heard argument in Commonwealth v. Silva-Santiago, an appeal from a murder conviction in which the defendant challenged the reliability of photographic arrays that had led several eyewitnesses to identify him as the killer.  Although not apparent at the time, Silva-Santiago marked the first step of an effort that would transform the relationship between scientific knowledge and the law of identification evidence in Massachusetts.  That effort was the work of Chief Justice Gants, and it forms a remarkable part of his legacy.

The rudiments of that effort were visible in Justice Gants’s opinion for the court in Silva-Santiago, which was released later that spring.[1]  That opinion rejected the defendant’s contention, for which there had been expert evidence at trial, that the identifications were unreliable and should not have been admitted into evidence because the photographs used in the arrays were shown to the eyewitnesses simultaneously rather than sequentially.  Citing two law review articles and an article published by the American Psychological Association, Justice Gants acknowledged a “debate among scholars and practitioners [as to] whether the sequential showing of photographs leads to greater accuracy” over a simultaneous showing, and concluded that, “[w]hile that debate evolves,” identifications produced through either procedure would be admissible.

This rationale was both curious and significant.  The legal issue in Silva-Santiago was whether the identifications were so “unnecessarily suggestive” as to offend due process.  Why look to an academic debate to resolve that legal issue, especially when expert evidence bearing on the answer was present in the record?  And why seek conclusiveness in that academic debate before declaring an answer as a matter of law?  In retrospect, Justice Gants’s reasoning in Silva-Santiago hinted at his ambition to align the law with the science behind identification evidence.

Two years later, in Commonwealth v. Walker, Justice Gants wrote for the court to again reject the argument that the court had rejected in Silva-Santiago.[2]  But Justice Gants’s opinion in Walker also took the next step: characterizing identification evidence as “the greatest source of wrongful convictions but also an invaluable law enforcement tool in obtaining accurate convictions,” it announced that a study group would be charged, among other things, with considering a new model jury instruction on “evaluating eyewitness testimony.

The SJC had adopted a model instruction on identification evidence in 1979,[3] and had periodically modified it thereafter.[4] That instruction exhorted the jury, when evaluating whether the government had proven the defendant’s identity as the perpetrator, to take into account certain abstract and neutral considerations such as the identifying eyewitness’s opportunity to observe the perpetrator, the circumstances surrounding the identification, and the eyewitness’s overall credibility.

The study group created after Walker returned its report in the summer of 2013.[5]  The report urged the SJC to take “judicial notice” of certain “psychological principles” concerning the mechanisms of memory and recall, as well as of factors that were said to diminish the reliability of those mechanisms.  It also proposed a new jury instruction that, beyond reciting abstract considerations, would instruct the jury as to many of the same scientific principles and factors of which judicial notice was urged.

It is important to appreciate the nature of the study group’s proposal.  Juries, of course, deal with science all the time, in the form of expert evidence that the court has deemed likely to be helpful in determining the facts of the particular case.[6] But what the study group proposed was qualitatively different: its proposal was, in effect, to adopt certain scientific knowledge as legal precepts to be applied in all cases.  That the scientific principles urged by the study group were well-established in the literature perhaps obscured a lurking tension: while scientific knowledge is factual in nature, iterative, and falsifiable, jury instructions are legal in nature, immutable, and to be accepted by the jury as true.

Justice Gants was promoted in the summer of 2014 and, on September 2 of that year, presided over his first arguments as Chief Justice.  Featured on the calendar that day were four appeals concerning aspects of eyewitness identification.  Chief Justice Gants wrote the opinion of the court in each of them.

Three of those opinions invoked and relied upon the science urged by the study group.[7]  But it was the fourth opinion, in Commonwealth v. Gomes,[8] that transformed the relationship between the science and the law of eyewitness identification evidence, for Gomes presented the issue of what jury instruction ought to be given concerning such evidence.

In Gomes, Chief Justice Gants adopted a highly modified version of the study group’s proposal.  The resulting jury instruction, which was appended to the Gomes opinion, continued to exhort the jury to consider things such as the witness’s opportunity to view the perpetrator and the quality of the witness’s perception.  But it additionally limned a three-stage scientific “process of remembering,” and identified situation-specific factors—such as “the visible presence of a weapon . . . if the crime is of short duration,” “high levels of stress [felt by the eyewitness], compared to low to medium levels,” and “information the [eyewitness] received between the incident and the identification, as well as after the identification”—that, juries were to be instructed, would diminish the reliability of the identification.  Chief Justice Gants explained that it was appropriate to incorporate these precepts into the “judge’s instructions of law, which the jury generally must accept,” because “there is a near consensus in the relevant scientific community . . . .”

The Gomes instruction represented an unprecedented infusion of scientific principles into the judge’s instructions of law.  But it could not be said to perfectly align the science with the law because, as noted, science is dynamic and is susceptible of being disproven.  Chief Justice Gants was mindful of these limitations, acknowledging that “even a principle for which there is near consensus is subject to revision based on further research findings, and that no principle of eyewitness identification should be treated as if set in stone.”  Anticipating the possibility that the principles embodied in the Gomes instruction might be disputed or overtaken by later research, his opinion authorized litigants to offer expert evidence to challenge, and potentially supersede, the instruction.  And, acknowledging that, “as the science evolves, we may need to revise our new model instruction[],” his opinion reconstituted a committee on eyewitness identification to monitor the development of the science and recommend updates.

The influence of Chief Justice Gants’s efforts to align the law with the science of identification evidence is visible in later SJC decisions that:

  • Presumptively required an instruction that “people may have greater difficulty in accurately identifying someone of a different race than someone of their own race,” unless all parties agreed that no such instruction is appropriate;[9]
  • Going beyond identification evidence, deemed advances in scientific understanding of the “shaken baby syndrome” as potential grounds for granting a new trial;[10] and
  • Looked to “the latest advances in scientific research on adolescent brain development and its impact on behavior” to inform the definition of cruel and unusual punishment vis-à-vis late-teenaged offenders.[11]

Chief Justice Gants’s efforts on this score not only changed the law, they changed the relationship between science and the law in the Commonwealth.  As the influence of these changes continues to reverberate, they showcase Justice Gants’s wisdom in recognizing both the promise and the limitations of science in helping to improve justice.

Eric A. Haskell is an Assistant Attorney General whose practice encompasses both civil and criminal matters. He recalls fondly his argument before Chief Justice Gants in Boston Globe Media Partners LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, No. SJC-12681. That argument lasted approximately forty minutes, despite having been scheduled for fifteen—and it was not the longest argument presented in that case that morning!

*This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Office of the Attorney General.  Opinions of the Attorney General are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority.

[1] 453 Mass. 782 (2009).

[2] 460 Mass. 590 (2011) (“[I]t is still too soon to conclude that sequential display is so plainly superior that any identification arising from a simultaneous display is unnecessarily suggestive and therefore must be suppressed.”).

[3] Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 378 Mass. 296 (1979).

[4] Commonwealth v. Cuffie, 414 Mass. 632 (1993); Commonwealth v. Santoli, 424 Mass. 837 (1997); see also Commonwealth v. Pressley, 390 Mass. 617 (1983).

[5] https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2016/08/ql/eyewitness-evidence-report-2013.pdf.

[6] See generally Mass. G. Evid. § 702.

[7] Commonwealth v. Crayton, 470 Mass. 228 (2014); Commonwealth v. Collins, 470 Mass. 255 (2014); Commonwealth v. Johnson, 470 Mass. 389 (2015).

[8] 470 Mass. 352 (2015).

[9]    Commonwealth v. Bastaldo, 472 Mass. 16 (2015).

[10] Commonwealth v. Epps, 474 Mass. 743 (2016).

[11] Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742 (2020).


Commonwealth v Norman: A Sea Change in Pre-Trial Electronic Surveillance

by Jamie Michael Charles

Legal Analysis

In recent years, the Supreme Judicial Court (the “SJC”) has dramatically changed the legal landscape governing the supervision upon release of people charged or convicted of criminal offenses by expanding privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Most recently, in Commonwealth v. Norman, 484 Mass. 330 (2020), the SJC limited a trial court’s ability to impose a requirement that a defendant wear a global positioning system (“GPS”) device as a condition of pre-trial release.

The rubric by which trial courts must assess the propriety of GPS monitoring as a condition of release going forward, and the peripheral ramifications of the SJC’s decision for the various parties to the criminal justice system, have broad implications for client and Commonwealth advocacy. For instance, the decision appears to mark a retreat from prior rulings tacitly approving a broader, safety-based rationale for pre-trial release conditions, and may vitiate other release conditions historically imposed pursuant to the bail statute. In the absence of legislative action, justices of the trial courts must now strike a new balance in their efforts to ensure a defendant’s appearance and protect the various parties to a criminal case. Additionally, both prosecutors and police must revisit their use of surveillance technology, particularly in the absence of legal process, to avoid constitutional violations carrying severe consequences for prosecutions that emanate from such surveillance.

Legal Background

In 2006, the Massachusetts Legislature amended the bail statute, M.G.L. c. 276, § 58, to permit the imposition of various “restrictions on personal associations or conduct” as conditions of release in addition to (or in lieu of) cash bail.[i] In the decade that followed, law enforcement officials, probation officers, and members of the bar operated under the assumption that, where appropriate, the trial court could require a defendant or probationer to wear a GPS ankle bracelet as a condition of release without implicating that individual’s constitutional rights.

This understanding began to unravel in Commonwealth v. Johnson, 481 Mass. 710 (2019), and Commonwealth v. Feliz, 481 Mass. 689 (2019), where the SJC concluded that GPS monitoring of post-conviction probationers amounts to a constitutional search under the Fourth Amendment and Article 14. These decisions were followed in short order by Norman, which extended their holdings to defendants subjected to pre-trial release on conditions. Norman revisited the underlying purposes for which trial courts can impose pre-trial conditions pursuant to the bail statute. In doing so, the SJC left open for question the legality of pre-trial conditions that were routinely imposed on defendants across the Commonwealth before Norman. Furthermore, viewed in combination with Johnson, as well as subsequent decisions in Commonwealth v. McCarthy, 484 Mass. 493 (2020) and Commonwealth v. Mora, 485 Mass. 360 (2020), Norman reflects the SJC’s broader concern with law enforcement’s warrantless use of ever-advancing surveillance technology.

The Norman Decision

In Norman, Medford police were investigating an armed home invasion and armed robbery. They requested a targeted search from the Massachusetts Probation Service’s Electronic Monitoring (“ELMO”) Program, which oversees compliance with GPS release conditions, to determine whether any individuals under GPS supervision were present at the time and location of the robbery. That search yielded a positive result for the defendant, who was subject to GPS monitoring as a condition of release imposed in conjunction with an unrelated drug crime. The ELMO data both placed the defendant at the scene of the robbery and led authorities to a residence where the defendant was shortly before and after the robbery. A search warrant executed at that residence yielded additional inculpatory information. A Superior Court judge allowed the defendant’s motion to suppress, agreeing that the initial procurement of ELMO data absent a warrant violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment and Article 14 rights. The Commonwealth appealed.

Relying primarily on Massachusetts and United States Supreme Court precedent recognizing an expectation of privacy in the whole of an individual’s physical movements, the SJC found that the initial imposition of GPS monitoring as a condition of pretrial release constituted a search under Article 14.[ii] It held that, going forward, the Commonwealth must demonstrate on the particular facts of each individual case that warrantless monitoring is “reasonable” to justify the attachment of a GPS ankle bracelet. Prior to imposing GPS monitoring, a judge must balance the intrusiveness of the monitoring against any legitimate governmental interests. In light of the “severe intrusion” occasioned by around-the-clock GPS monitoring[iii] – which the justices analogized to a modern-day scarlet letter – the SJC cautioned that even monitoring that serves legitimate government interests could be deemed unreasonable.

The SJC also defined narrowly the legitimate interests served by conditions of release imposed pursuant to the bail statute. It concluded that the only permissible goals of pretrial conditions of release in the defendant’s case were “ensuring the defendant’s return to court and his presence at trial, and safeguarding the integrity of the judicial process by protecting witnesses from intimidation and other forms of influence.”[iv] In doing so, the SJC rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that, unlike cash bail, conditions of release imposed under section 58 may serve the goals of generally deterring criminal conduct or addressing dangerousness concerns (the latter being an interest served under section 58A governing dangerousness determinations). As to the latter goal, the SJC appeared to limit the scope of its earlier ruling in Brangan v. Commonwealth, 477 Mass. 691, 706 (2017), that “a judge may not consider a defendant’s alleged dangerousness in setting the amount of bail, although a defendant’s dangerousness may be considered as a factor in setting other conditions of release.”[v] As a result, prosecutors must now be cognizant that general criminal deterrence and dangerousness are not valid interests in imposing GPS monitoring pursuant to the bail statute in most cases.

Broader Implications of Norman

The reasoning of the SJC’s Norman decision may also limit other types of conditions routinely imposed by the Commonwealth’s trial courts. For example, does ordering a defendant charged with operating under the influence to abstain from drugs or alcohol, or submit to random screens designed to detect those substances, ensure that defendant’s return to court?[vi] Will ordering a defendant repeatedly charged with drug distribution to stay away from the geographical area in which the charges arose protect potential witnesses? There certainly is an argument that these conditions more readily serve the goals of deterrence or community safety, and therefore are inappropriate conditions post-Norman. In fact, the SJC appeared to explicitly disapprove of an exclusionary zone in drug distribution cases absent evidence that the condition was “intended to insulate any particular victims or civilian witnesses[.]”[vii] Without legislative action, judicial officers[viii] may need to reassess the enduring utility of these and other commonly imposed conditions, and explore alternative avenues to cabin a defendant’s pre-trial conduct.

In addition to creating legitimate questions about the legality of certain release conditions, Norman also is one of a string of recent decisions creating a ‘new normal’ for law enforcement use of data generated by electronic surveillance. In Commonwealth v. McCarthy, 484 Mass. 493 (2020), the SJC held that law enforcement review of automated license plate reader (“ALPR”) data maintained by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security could infringe upon a reasonable expectation of privacy if the data painted a detailed enough picture (or “mosaic”) of the targeted individual’s movements. Likewise, in Commonwealth v. Mora, 485 Mass. 360 (2020), the SJC applied a virtually identical analysis to protracted pole camera surveillance, concluding that a warrant was required where such monitoring enabled investigators to uncover the defendant’s private behaviors, patterns, and associations.

The theme in these cases, as in Norman and Johnson, is the SJC’s recognition that individuals have an expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements. And, that regardless of its form, prolonged electronic surveillance can provide “access to a category of information otherwise unknowable.”[ix] Yet while the technologies and data at issue in Norman, McCarthy, and Mora have historically been available to law enforcement in Massachusetts without a warrant, the SJC has thus far declined to set a bright line rule as to when the aggregation of such digital surveillance data crosses the threshold into an Article 14 search.[x] Members of law enforcement must therefore exercise caution when utilizing digital surveillance data that has historically served as a building block for criminal investigations. And prosecutors should seriously consider advising their law enforcement partners to secure a warrant supported by probable cause or another governing legal standard before requesting such data.[xi] Officers who fail to seek legal process run the risk of an ex post facto determination that the aggregation of GPS surveillance data infringed upon a reasonable expectation of privacy, resulting in that data being suppressed “even if law enforcement could have met the applicable [legal] standard.”[xii]

Lessons for Law Enforcement

This new “proceed at your peril” paradigm, aptly demonstrated by the historical GPS data ultimately suppressed in Norman, provides several practical lessons for law enforcement. First, warrantless requests for ELMO data may become less common, as law enforcement must determine whether the quantum of data requested from ELMO will infringe on a potential suspect’s reasonable expectation of privacy such that a warrant is required. Although there was no need for this analysis in Norman (because the ankle bracelet’s initial imposition was itself deemed unreasonable), the SJC recognized in Johnson, 481 Mass. at 727, that, at least as to defendants on probation, there is a difference between “a targeted review of GPS data directed at times and locations of suspected criminal activity” and “mapping out and reviewing all of the defendant’s movements . . . or rummaging through the defendant’s historical GPS location data indiscriminately.” The former may, depending on the specific facts of a particular case, fall short of a constitutional search necessitating probable cause.

Second, while application of the “mosaic” theory may be somewhat more straightforward in the context of ALPRs, pole cameras, and other surveillance technologies, any warrantless request will inevitably be subject to a retroactive assessment of its constitutionality. Such an analysis will consider both the volume of data requested or acquired and what that data reveals about a suspect’s movements, day-to-day routine, political and religious beliefs, and other private affairs. Absent legal process, the pyramid of evidence emanating from such data may collapse upon judicial review and cripple a prosecution.

Third, as to historical ELMO data, even a lawful, warrantless request may be subject to suppression based on a judicial determination that the suspect (whose identity was likely unknown to law enforcement at the time of the request) was improperly subjected to GPS monitoring. Given the virtually unknowable nature of this analysis at the time of an officer’s initial request, law enforcement officials may need to think twice about using ELMO data to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Conclusion

Norman and similar decisions addressing the use of digital surveillance – whether during the pre-charge investigatory phase or in conjunction with a criminal prosecution – have fundamentally altered the manner in which police and prosecutors use these technologies. Prosecutors and judges must re-evaluate how to address and constrain the behavior of defendants before and after trial. Conditions of release routinely imposed pre-trial may no longer serve the legitimate government interests vindicated by the bail statute. In particular, GPS monitoring as a condition of release and the use of associated location data by law enforcement have been significantly constrained. Police likewise must reassess technologies that previously served as building blocks of criminal investigations and weigh the utility of their warrantless use against the risk of a court suppressing the resulting evidence. One thing remains certain: as technology inevitably evolves, our appellate jurisprudence will continue to redefine the balance between the tools available to law enforcement and the courts and an individual’s right to privacy.

[1] See St. 2006, c. 48, § 8 (Mar. 30, 2006).

[2] While acknowledging that consent can justify a warrantless search, the Court largely dismissed its import in this context given the inherent coercion involved where a defendant agrees to GPS monitoring in lieu of pre-trial incarceration. Norman, 484 Mass. at 335.

[3] The Court highlighted how faulty alerts and charging issues associated with monitoring devices can compromise an individual’s employment and subject that person to the indignities and dangers associated with an arrest. Norman, 484 Mass. at 339.

[4] Norman, 484 Mass. at 338. The Court acknowledged that a separate provision of the bail statute permitted conditions of release to be imposed in certain crimes involving domestic abuse “in order to ensure . . . the safety of the alleged victim, any other individual or the community.” See G.L. c. 276, § 58, third par.

[5] In a footnote, the Court specifically referenced the provision of section 58 authorizing specific restrictions on personal associations or conduct. See Brangan, 477 Mass. at 706 n.18.

[6] Like GPS monitoring, random drug and alcohol testing constitutes a search and seizure for constitutional purposes under Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. See Commonwealth v. Gomes, 73 Mass. App. Ct. 857, 859 (2009). Such conditions have been deemed appropriate in the probationary context, where a defendant’s expectation of privacy is reduced, so long as “reasonably related” to the goals of sentencing and probation, in light of the defendant’s underlying crime and his or her particular circumstances. See Commonwealth v. Lapointe, 435 Mass. 455, 459 (2001).

[7] Norman, 484 Mass. at 338.

[8] Mass. Gen. Laws. c. 276, § 58 authorizes numerous parties, including justices, clerks and bail commissioners, to set conditions of pretrial release.

[9] McCarthy, 484 Mass. at 500, quoting Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206, 2217 (2018); Norman, 484 Mass. at 334, quoting Commonwealth v. Johnson, 481 Mass. 710, 717 (2019). The Court first recognized this privacy expectation in Commonwealth v. Augustine, 467 Mass. 230, 245-49 (2014). Acknowledging that cellular phones had become “an indispensable part of modern American life”, the Court found that “[cell-site location information] raises even greater privacy concerns than a GPS tracking device” as a “cellular telephone is carried on the person of its user, [and therefore] tracks the user’s location far beyond the limitations of where a car can travel.” Id. at 245, 249. The United States Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018).

[10] McCarthy acknowledged that the absence of a bright-line rule would create “some interim confusion[,]” but expressed confidence that the “constitutional line” would “gradually and appropriately . . . come into focus.” 484 Mass. at 509. The Court cautioned that it “risk[ed] error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment [or art. 14] implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear.” Id., quoting Ontario v. Quon, 560 U.S. 746, 759 (2010).

[11] Massachusetts case law already recognizes that law enforcement may obtain certain forms of historical location data on a lesser showing than probable cause. For example, in Commonwealth v. Estabrook, 472 Mass. 852, 855 n.4 (2015), the Court concluded that Article 14 permits requests for less than six hours of historical cell-site location information (“CSLI”) on a showing of “specific and articulable facts” evidencing “reasonable grounds to believe” that the records “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation[.]” Likewise, Chief Justice Gants’ concurrence in McCarthy, 484 Mass. at 514, proposed a “lesser” locational mosaic threshold that would require a showing of “‘specific and articulable facts’ demonstrating reasonable suspicion that the targeted individual has committed, is committing, or will commit a crime . . . and that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the data obtained from the query are relevant and material to an investigation of the crime.”

[12] McCarthy, 484 Mass. at 514 (Gants, C.J., concurring).

Jamie Michael Charles is an Assistant District Attorney in the Appeals and Training Bureau of the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office.


The Brief but Complicated Life of the Medical Parole Statute

by Jessica Conklin

Legal Analysis

In April 2018, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act (the “Act”). In addition to enacting sweeping changes in the areas of bail, juvenile justice, diversion from prosecution, and reentry services, the Act established a statutory right to medical parole for all eligible inmates. The medical parole statute, codified at G.L. c. 127, §119A, provides terminally ill and permanently incapacitated prisoners who do not pose a public safety risk the right to be released from custody, regardless of the crime of conviction or the time remaining on their sentence. Until the Act was passed, Massachusetts was one of only a handful of states without this remedy.  

Medical Parole Basics

Under the Act, petitioning prisoners who meet the qualifying criteria “shall be released on medical parole.” G.L. c. 127 §119(e) (emphasis added). All inmates, including those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, have a right to medical parole if they qualify. To be eligible for release, a prisoner must meet three conditions: (i) the prisoner must be terminally ill or permanently incapacitated; (ii) the prisoner must be able to live and remain at liberty without violating the law; and (iii) the prisoner’s release must not be incompatible with the welfare of society.   

As to the first condition, the Act defines “terminal illness” and “permanent incapacity,” but does not list specific qualifying illnesses or incapacities. Terminal illness is defined as “a condition that appears incurable, as determined by a licensed physician, that will likely cause the death of the prisoner in not more than 18 months and that is so debilitating that the prisoner does not pose a public safety risk.” Permanent incapacitation is defined as “a physical or cognitive incapacitation that appears irreversible, as determined by a licensed physician, and that is so debilitating that the prisoner does not pose a public safety risk.” The Act does not provide guidance on the second and third conditions; that is, it does not list factors to evaluate an inmate’s ability to live at liberty without violating the law or circumstances that might render an inmate’s release incompatible with the welfare of society.

Procedurally, the prisoner, an attorney, the prisoner’s relative, a medical provider of a correctional facility, or a Department of Correction (“DOC”) staff member may petition the superintendent or sheriff of the facility where the inmate is being held for medical parole on behalf of the inmate. The Act does not prescribe a particular form for the petition. The Act requires expeditious review and a timely decision of medical parole petitions by setting specific deadlines after receipt of the petition. Within 21 days of a superintendent’s or sheriff’s receipt of a medical parole petition, the superintendent or sheriff must provide to the DOC Commissioner (“the Commissioner”): (i) a recommendation regarding release; (ii) a medical parole plan;[1] (iii) a written diagnosis by a licensed physician; and (iv) an assessment of the risk for violence that the prisoner poses to society. G.L. 127, §119A(c)(1). The Commissioner, who is the administrative decision maker, then has 45 days to issue a written decision granting or denying medical parole. If a prisoner’s petition is denied, there is no internal DOC appeals process. The Act allows for judicial review through a petition for certiorari under G.L. c. 249, §4. G.L. c. 127, §119A(g).[2]

2019 Medical Parole Regulations

The Act tasks the secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (“EOPSS”) with promulgating rules for administering the medical parole process. G.L. c. 127, §119A(h). EOPSS promulgated regulations in July 2019 (the “2019 Regulations”).

EOPSS took a restrictive view of the scope of the right to medical parole. The 2019 Regulations required the petitioner to develop a medical parole plan and authorized the superintendent or sheriff to reject petitions as incomplete. Under the 2019 Regulations, a complete petition included: (1) an adequate medical parole plan; (2) a written diagnosis by a licensed physician; (3) a release allowing disclosure of the petition and all supporting documents to other criminal justice agencies, the appropriate district attorney, and registered victims or victims’ family members; and (4) a release allowing DOC and the parole board to assess the inmate’s medical parole plan. 501 CMR §§ 17.03(3), 17.03(5). Incomplete petitions required no further action by the superintendent or sheriff. These initial regulations, however, did not stay on the books for long.

The Supreme Judicial Court Weighs In

In early 2020, the SJC invalidated several of the 2019 Regulations as contrary to the plain language of the Act and the legislative intent.[3] Buckman v. Comm’r of Correction, 484 Mass. 14 (2020).

In January 2019, inmates Peter Cruz and Joseph Buckman each submitted a petition for medical parole which was rejected as incomplete by their respective superintendents. Both Cruz and Buckman challenged the decision, arguing that the superintendent must consider a petition regardless of his or her view of completeness or adequacy. When Cruz died in custody during the pendency of the appeal, the case continued with Buckman as the sole plaintiff.  

Buckman’s appeal raised three important questions: (1) whether a superintendent must consider a petition for medical parole regardless of the superintendent’s view of the completeness or adequacy of the petition; (2) which party bears the burden of preparing a  medical parole plan, obtaining a written diagnosis by a licensed physician, and preparing an assessment regarding the risk for violence the prisoner poses to society; and (3) whether the Commissioner must provide the prisoner with notice of the superintendent’s recommendation, a copy of the recommendation, and any supporting or related materials. Buckman, 484 Mass. at 15-16. 

In answering the first question, the court held that a superintendent or sheriff must consider a petition for medical parole regardless of the petition’s completeness. The court noted that the medical parole plan, the written diagnosis by a licensed physician, and medical record releases are documents separate from the petition. As such, those documents are not required to initiate the petition process and trigger the statutory deadlines imposed on the superintendent and the Commissioner. Id. at 25 n.23. The separate nature of these documents is evidenced by the requirement that the superintendent or sheriff – not the petitioner – is required to transmit the medical parole plan, diagnosis, and the risk assessment to the Commissioner with the petition. Id. at 24; G.L. c. 127, §119A (c)(1) and (d)(1). To trigger the Act’s deadlines, the petitioner need not do more than submit a “written” petition. Id. at 26. 

On the second question, the SJC ruled that the superintendent or sheriff bears the burden of creating a medical parole plan and obtaining a written diagnosis from a licensed physician. The court reasoned that the Legislature could not have intended to place the burden of expeditiously producing documents on a terminally ill or incapacitated prisoner because the Act only requires the submission of the written petition to trigger the 21-day countdown. Furthermore, because the Act placed the burden of creating the risk assessment on the superintendent, one could infer that the Legislature intended to place the concomitant burden on the superintendent to create the medical parole plan and obtain a diagnosis from a licensed physician. Id. at 25-29.

Finally, the court held that the prisoner must receive all supporting documents submitted by the superintendent except the superintendent’s recommendation to the Commissioner. While nothing in the Act prohibits restricting a petitioner’s right to a superintendent’s recommendation, the court found it fundamentally unfair to prohibit the petitioner from receiving documents that the district attorney could access upon request. In fact, the 2019 Regulations themselves anticipated that the petitioner would have access to the medical parole plan and medical diagnosis because the burden of producing these documents was placed (albeit erroneously) on the petitioner. Id. at 30-32.

Proposed 2020 Regulations

After Buckman, EOPSS began the process of amending its medical parole regulations. The proposed regulations, accessible here, blend new provisions with surviving sections of the 2019 Regulations. At a public hearing on September 16, 2020, lawmakers and advocates criticized the proposed regulations for ignoring the court’s guidance in Buckman, narrowing the population eligible for medical parole, and placing unnecessary roadblocks that delay and frustrate the purposes of the medical parole law. 

Some issues flagged by advocates include defining the term “prisoner” to exclude pretrial detainees and individuals who have been civilly committed, construing “permanent disability” to require a higher level of disability than the Act requires, and requiring, as part of the petition, two signed releases on specific DOC issued forms. Although the proposed regulations have not been formally adopted, cases relevant to the proposed regulations are currently before the SJC.

Recent Appellate Litigation

On October 5, 2020, the SJC heard argument in three cases related to the medical parole statute:  Racine v. Comm’r of Dep’t of Correction (“Racine”), SJC-12895; Harmon v. Comm’r of Dep’t of Correction (“Harmon”), SJC-12876; and Malloy et. al. v. Dep’t of Correction (“Malloy”), SJC-12961.[4] These cases may answer a number of issues related to the 2019 Regulations, the proposed regulations, and the practical difficulties litigating medical parole cases.

In Harmon and Racine, which were argued jointly, the parties addressed: (1) whether a prisoner’s death renders moot a certiorari action for review of denial of medical parole; (2) whether the EOPSS regulation giving a prisoner the right to reconsideration upon a material decline in health precludes a prisoner from submitting a new petition for medical parole; (3) whether the Act applies only to committed offenders or includes pre-trial detainees; and (4) whether a reviewing court has authority to grant medical parole. The court requested amicus briefing on the first three issues.   

On the first question, DOC took the position that death generally renders a case moot. Petitioners argued an inmate’s death (or release) should not moot a case when the issues in the plaintiff’s case are capable of repetition and will otherwise evade review. Petitioners emphasized that the lengthy process to litigate a certiorari action after denial of a medical parole petition will frequently result in plaintiffs dying before their day in court. 

On the second question, both the 2019 Regulations and the proposed regulations contain a provision stating that “[n]o subsequent petitions may be submitted following the Commissioner’s denial of medical parole, unless the prisoner experiences a significant and material decline in medical condition.” 501 CMR § 17.14. Petitioners’ counsel took the position that the Act requires the superintendent to review every petition and does not restrict an inmate’s right to file a subsequent petition. DOC argued the Act does not address subsequent medical parole petitions and that EOPSS has the authority to regulate the matter.

On the third question, petitioners argued that the regulations’ exclusion of pre-trial detainees impermissibly narrows the scope of the Act. DOC contends that extending medical parole to pretrial detainees violates the separation of powers.

Finally, in deciding these cases, the SJC also may address the question of whether, on certiorari review, a reviewing court has authority to order medical parole. On this issue, DOC argued judges are limited to remanding a case to the Commissioner for further consideration, while the petitioners argued, among other things, that the certiorari remedy necessarily includes the power to order the medical parole the Commissioner improperly denied.[5]

In Malloy, the court was asked to consider whether a prisoner may continue to be held in custody after the Commissioner has granted medical parole. In that case, two inmates were each granted medical parole without a medical parole plan in place and continued to be detained for weeks while DOC attempted to find a suitable placement. Both the 2019 Regulations and the proposed regulations give the Commissioner the authority to set conditions that must be met prior to the prisoner’s release, a process which may create delay. 501 CMR § 17.11.  

Petitioner’s counsel took the position that continuing to hold an inmate in custody after he has been granted medical parole is improper; that the superintendent or sheriff is required to create a comprehensive medical parole plan, including contingency options, within the 66-day window afforded by the Act; and where suitable placement has not been found prisoners should be released to a Department of Public Health facility rather than remaining incarcerated. In contrast, DOC argued the Act does not require immediate release and does not limit the period during which DOC may hold an inmate after medical parole has been granted. Regardless of the outcome, the Court’s decision in Malloy is likely to clarify the timing of an inmate’s right to release under the Act once the Commissioner has decided to grant medical parole. 

Conclusion

With inmates facing increased vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic, the medical parole statute is particularly important, yet release under the Act has been rare. At the time DOC filed its brief in Malloy, 337 inmates had submitted petitions for medical parole, of which 34 had been granted. Of the 34 inmates granted medical parole, 30 had been released from custody. Three inmates were still awaiting release and one had died after being granted medical parole, but before being released from custody.[6]   

Medical parole in Massachusetts is still in its infancy. Its scope, and the procedural mechanisms that govern review of medical parole petitions, will continue to be tested and refined over the coming year.

[1] The Act defines a medical parole plan as: “a comprehensive written medical and psychosocial care plan specific to a prisoner and including, but not limited to: (i) the proposed course of treatment; (ii) the proposed site for treatment and post-treatment care; (iii) documentation that medical providers qualified to provide the medical services identified in the medical parole plan are prepared to provide such services; and (iv) the financial program in place to cover the cost of the plan for the duration of the medical parole, which shall include eligibility for enrollment in commercial insurance, Medicare or Medicaid or access to other adequate financial resources for the duration of the medical parole.” G.L. c. 127 §119A(a). 

[2] Because affected prisoners are frequently infirm, subject to quick health changes, and usually nearing the end of life, expediting certiorari review is often important. See, e.g., G.L. c. 249, §4 (certiorari petitions must be filed within 60 days); Superior Court Standing Order 1-96(2) (administrative record must be filed within 90 days), Superior Court Standing Order 1-96(4) (certiorari action must be resolved through a motion for judgment on the pleadings served within 30 days of the filing of the administrative record).  

[3] As stated in Buckman, the Legislature enacted the medical parole statute to save money on expensive end of life medical care and for reasons of compassion. 484 Mass. at 21-22.

[4] Superior Court judges have also tackled issues related to the Act. See Adrey v. Dep’t of Correction, Suffolk Superior Civil No. 19-3786-H, 2020 WL 4347617 (Mass. Super. June 19, 2020); Mahdi v. Dep’t of Correction, Norfolk Superior Civil No. 19-1064, Memorandum and Order (Mar. 31, 2020).

[5] G.L. c. 127, §119A(g) states: “A decision by the court affirming or reversing the commissioner’s grant or denial of medical parole shall not affect a prisoner’s eligibility for any other form of release permitted by law.” (Emphasis added).

[6] Brief of Respondent-Appellee Department of Correction, Malloy et. al. v. Dep’t of Correction, SJC-12961. 

Jessica Conklin concentrates her practice in white collar criminal defense, government investigations, and school disciplinary hearings. Jessica works with students and their families who attend several local secondary schools, colleges and universities in connection with disciplinary proceedings and title IX investigations. Jessica is also a member of the board of editors for the Boston Bar Journal.