Categorically Counterintuitive: Pre-Trial Imprisonment Based on Dangerousness

by Reyna M. Ramirez

Case Focus

Dangerousness hearings have huge stakes for defendants: if the Commonwealth proves by clear and convincing evidence that there are no conditions that can assure the safety of the community, a defendant can be incarcerated for up to 120 days in a district court case, or 180 days in a Superior Court case. G.L. c. 276, § 58A. However, pretrial detention based on “dangerousness” is counter-balanced by the presumption of innocence that undergirds our entire criminal justice system, and criminal defendants have recently mounted successful challenges to certain applications of the statute.  This article reviews the challenges, the Supreme Judicial Court’s rulings, and responsive proposed legislation.

“Dangerousness” Hearings Under G.L. c. 276, § 58A

Under General Laws c. 276, § 58A, a court may order pretrial detention of a criminal defendant if the prosecution shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that no conditions of release will reasonably assure the safety of any other person or the community. But the Commonwealth can seek such pretrial detention only if the defendant is charged with: (a) one of several predicate enumerated crimes; (b) a misdemeanor or felony that involves “abuse” (the “abuse clause” of § 58A); (c) a felony that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against another (the “force clause”); or (d) a felony that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person of another may result (the “residual clause”).

The abuse clause defines “abuse” with reference to the definition of abuse contained in Chapter 209A, that is, where the charged crime is against the defendant’s “family or household member,” including somebody who is or has been in a substantive dating or engagement relationship with the defendant, and involves: 1) attempting or causing physical harm; 2) putting others in fear of imminent serious physical harm; or 3) causing another to participate in sexual relations involuntarily through force, threat, or duress (i.e., rape).

The force clause focuses on whether the elements of the charged offense involve the use of force. A “categorical approach” is used to determine whether a non-enumerated felony qualifies as a predicate under the force clause. Commonwealth v. Young, 453 Mass. 707, 712 (2009). This approach assesses the elements of the felony “independent of the particular facts giving rise to a complaint or indictment.” Id. In other words, to determine whether a charge qualifies as a predicate under the force clause, the court asks not whether the defendant’s conduct involved the use of force, but rather whether the elements of the crime necessarily always involve the use of force.

Finally, the residual clause asks whether a felony “by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person of another may result.” G. L. c. 276, § 58A.

Commonwealth v. Barnes / Scione v. Commonwealth

In January 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on the consolidated appeals of David Barnes and William Scione, each of whom had been detained following a finding of dangerousness under § 58A. Scione v. Commonwealth, 481 Mass. 225 (2019). Barnes was charged with statutory rape in violation of G.L. c. 265, § 23A, based on an allegation that he had sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl at a hotel after the two met online. Scione, on the other hand, was charged with using an incendiary device in violation of G.L. c. 266, § 102A, based on an allegation that he created a homemade improvised explosive device and placed it at the bottom of the driveway of his former girlfriend’s home (the record indicated that the device could have caused serious harm if it had not failed to explode). Neither of the charged crimes is an enumerated predicate charge under § 58A.

The SJC first ruled that statutory rape under § 23A is not a predicate charge under the force clause. Using the required categorical approach to analyze the elements of statutory rape under § 23A, the SJC observed that the crime requires proof that: (1) the defendant had sexual or unnatural intercourse with (2) a child between 12 and 16 years old where (3) there was a greater than 10-year age difference between the defendant and the child. Thus, force is not a required element of proof for statutory rape. The SJC noted that forcible rape of a child is its own crime under G.L. c. 265, § 22A, and that“[t]he fact that the Legislature saw fit to create two separate statutory rape offenses – one that includes the use of force and one that does not” – supported its decision to find there is no force element with respect to § 23A. Scione, 481 Mass. at 230. Justice Lowy wrote a separate concurrence “because such a counterintuitive result requires further discussion and consideration by the Legislature,” signaling to the Legislature to fix what he termed an “unfortunate” decision mandated “under the law as currently written.” Id. at 239.

The SJC next ruled that statutory rape under § 23A cannot be a predicate charge under the residual clause, because the residual clause is unconstitutionally vague. Scione, 481 Mass. at 230. To reach this conclusion, the SJC relied on the decisions of the United States Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. —, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) and Sessions v. Dimaya, 548 U.S. —, 138 S. Ct. 1204 (2018) which, respectively, held that similarly-worded residual clauses in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act and the federal statutory definition of “crime of violence” were each vague because they failed to set out how to determine which crimes triggered the statute’s application. Noting that it had already followed Johnson in interpreting the Massachusetts Armed Career Criminal Act, see Commonwealth v. Beal, 474 Mass. 341 (2016), the SJC ruled that the residual clause of § 58A is unconstitutionally vague under Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and, therefore, cannot be used to justify dangerousness proceedings in any case.

Turning to Scione’s case, the Court analyzed whether his charge of using an incendiary device under § 102A could trigger a dangerousness hearing under the abuse clause (which, the Commonwealth argued, applied because the alleged victim had previously been in a substantive dating relationship with the defendant). The Court held that, unlike the force clause, the abuse clause does not require use of the categorical approach. The SJC reached this conclusion in part because only one Massachusetts statutory crime—assault and battery on a household member (G.L. c. 265, § 13M)—explicitly includes abuse as an element. Id. at 236. Using statutory interpretation principles to presume that the Legislature intended to act logically, the Court opined that, “had the Legislature intended that only one crime be captured under the abuse clause,” it would have enumerated that crime rather than enact a separate “abuse” clause. Id. Instead, the SJC found, abuse “is best described as a characterization of an action or actions” and, therefore, a judge can look at the details of the defendant’s underlying conduct to determine whether the charge involves abuse. Id. Applying those principles to Scione, the SJC found that his alleged acts of placing a potentially-harmful IED on the property of his former girlfriend indeed involved abuse.

Commonwealth v. Vieira

The SJC’s decision in Barnes paved the way for its October 2019 decision in Commonwealth v. Vieira. 483 Mass. 417 (2019). There, the defendant was charged with indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 years old, in violation of G.L. c. 265, § 13B, based on allegations that he had engaged in sexual activity with a thirteen-year old boy he met online.  Indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 is not an enumerated charge under § 58A, and the Commonwealth sought to treat it as a predicate charge under the force clause.

At the outset of its opinion, the SJC reminded practitioners that “pretrial detention is a measure of last resort,” and that the presumption of innocence always applies. Applying the categorical approach, the SJC observed that indecent assault and battery on a child under § 13B does not have statutory elements, but rather incorporates the common law definition of battery, including to the extent that an assault is simply a threatened or attempted battery. The SJC explained that, at common law, there were three types of battery: (1) harmful battery, involving touching with such violence that bodily harm was likely to result; (2) reckless battery, involving a wanton, willful, or reckless act that results in injury; and (3) offensive battery, requiring “only that the defendant, without justification or excuse, intentionally touched the victim, and that the touching, however slight, occurred without the victim’s consent.” Although the first two types, the SJC found, necessarily involve the use of physical force, offensive battery does not. And, because a court evaluating bail and pretrial detention does not look to whether the charged conduct involves harmful, reckless, or offensive battery, application of the categorical approach means that a statutory crime incorporating all three types of battery does not necessarily always include force. Applying those principles, the SJC concluded that indecent assault and battery under § 14B is not a predicate charge under the force clause of § 58A.

Looking Forward

Two days after the SJC’s decision in Barnes, Governor Charles Baker submitted House Bill No. 66, An Act to Protect the Commonwealth from Dangerous Persons, which sought to change the dangerousness statute to include sex offenses involving children by adding those crimes – along with others – to § 58A’s list of enumerated crimes. This bill retains the force clause but completely removes the unconstitutional residual clause. Adding more enumerated crimes would have the effect of subjecting more individuals to dangerousness hearings and pre-trial detention. However, this approach does not address the issue that battery may not always include force, but commonly does. See, e.g., G.L. c. 265, § 13A (assault and battery). Instead, this legislation only addresses the specifics of the cases the SJC has adjudicated and misses an opportunity to draft legislation that looks forward and targets only the most dangerous of offenses and individuals.

Reyna M. Ramirez is a Partner at Ramirez and Sunnerberg, a criminal defense and prisoners’ rights practice on the South Shore. She is also an Associate at the firm J. W. Carney, Jr. and Associates, where she litigates complex criminal defense cases.