COVID-19 Update: How We Are Serving and Protecting Our Clients
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Under Massachusetts’ law, individuals convicted of sex offenses may need to provide identifying information to a state reporting agency, commonly referred to as the “sex offender registry.” Lawmakers maintain that the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry assists their agency with identifying sex offenders and reducing the likelihood of recidivism. After conviction and during sentencing, these individuals will receive a classification level, depending on their crime, dangerousness, and likelihood of re-offense.

The most common crimes requiring sex offender registration are battery, rape, indecent assault, assault with the intent to commit rape, kidnapping, drugging a person for sexual intercourse, inducing a minor into pornography, prostitution, and sex trafficking. Under Massachusetts’s law, convicted sex offenders must register with the Massachusetts registry if they live, work, or attend school in the state. Additionally, the law requires that these individuals update their information if they have a secondary address in the state, are moving to the state, become homeless, work in Massachusetts, or live in another state, but attend school in Massachusetts.

The registry requires these individuals to report their full legal name, any aliases, home addresses, and work addresses. Work addresses include all forms of employment, including part-time and volunteer work. The registrant must include their physical characteristics, including height, weight, eye and hair color, and identifying marks. Higher-level registrants must include fingerprints and photographs. Those convicted of federal sex offenses may need to register through the state and National Sex Offender Registry.

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently issued an opinion in a defendant’s appeal regarding a violation of probation case. According to the court’s opinion, in 2015, the defendant pleaded guilty to battery on a child under fourteen, indecent assault, and child pornography possession. A judge sentenced the defendant to five years of probation. Under the terms of the probation, the defendant was registered as a level three sex offender under the Sexual Offender Registry Board (SORB), his location was to be monitored by GPS, he was prohibited from having contact with the victim, and he was prohibited from “working, volunteering, or residing” with children under 16 years old.

Evidently, the defendant was a self-employed home-improvement contractor, specializing in repairs of old homes. For more than thirty years, the defendant operated his business out of his home workshop. Per SORB requirements, the defendant filled out and submitted identifying information in 2015 and 2017, indicating that he was self-employed and listing his home address as his employment address. The defendant had the same probation officer for three years, and at no point did anyone advise the defendant to list all of his clients’ addresses as his “employer address.”

During this time, the defendant performed window restoration work at a client’s home. He removed the windows and did the majority of the work at his home workshop. At the time of the incident, the family did not have any children. Shortly after this job was complete, the family had a baby and hired the defendant to perform other home repairs. Over several months, the defendant performed work for the family; but he did not have any contact with the baby. On one occasion, a police officer stopped the man in a shopping plaza when he was on his way from the client’s home. The officer contacted his probation officer to determine whether the defendant registered his work address in the county of the client’s home—which he did not. The defendant was subsequently charged with a probation violation.

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Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts gun case, affirming the principle that “a conviction cannot stand if the defendant proves that the jury’s deliberations were infected by racial or ethnic bias.” The case involved a defendant who entered a guilty plea to a sentencing enhancement who later found out from a juror that the jury’s deliberations were “infected by racial bias.”

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, immediately after the defendant was found guilty of possession of a firearm, one of the jurors approached defense counsel concerned about the “amount of racism vocalized during the deliberations by several of the jurors who voted to find the defendant guilty.” Defense counsel asked the court for the names and contact information of the jurors so that they could investigate the claim. The judge denied the defendant’s request, instead suggesting that the prosecutor agree to drop the more serious sentencing enhancement and proceed only with the less serious enhancement. The prosecutor agreed, at which point the defendant pled guilty to the lesser of two sentencing enhancements.

The defendant appealed his guilty plea, arguing that the judge improperly denied his motion to look into any potential racial bias in the jury. The defendant further claimed that his guilty plea regarding the sentencing enhancement was involuntary and, therefore, invalid.

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts murder case requiring the court to determine whether the defendant’s statement to police was improperly admitted into evidence at trial. Ultimately, the court rejected the defendant’s arguments, affirmed the trial court’s decision to admit the statements, and upheld the defendant’s conviction.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was arrested and charged for the murder of a drug dealer. Evidently, the defendant arranged for the victim to meet him in a parking lot, where the defendant stabbed the dealer multiple times in the chest and arm.

As it turns out, the defendant had told his girlfriend about two weeks earlier that he was considering robbing his drug dealer. He brought up his plan again to her just two days before the incident.

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As the COVOD-19 pandemic continues, the restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the virus remain in effect. Initially, the pandemic resulted in the near-total shutdown of the Massachusetts justice system, as all jury trials were suspended, and courts only heard emergency matters.

As the number of new cases in the area has started to drop off, courts have begun to reopen. However, many of the restrictions that were put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 will remain to have an impact on the ability of the criminal justice system to function properly. There are several areas of concern related to conducting jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Sixth Amendment Right to a Fair Jury Trial

Under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, anyone charged with a crime enjoys the right to a fair trial by an impartial jury of the person’s peers. An important part of this right is the requirement that the jury is drawn from a fair cross-section of the community. While there is no magic formula to determine what a fair cross-section looks like, courts have held that states cannot pass laws or implement policies that have the effect of limiting groups of people from serving on juries.

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Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in a drug case, requiring the court to determine whether the lower court properly dismissed the defendants’ motion to suppress. The court ultimately held that the lower court improperly denied the motion because that court determined the police officers’ conduct did not constitute a “search” under relevant state and federal constitutional principles.

The Fourth Amendment protects all U.S. citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. Primarily, the United States Supreme Court is responsible for determining what constitutes a search and whether police officer conduct, in general, is reasonable. It is then left to the lower courts to apply the facts to relevant Supreme Court precedent.

However, states also have their own constitutions, which may provide additional rights. Thus, while certain rights may not exist under the U.S. Constitution, a state may determine that such rights exist under the state constitution. That is what happened in this case.

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Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in an unusual, but highly relevant, case. The case involved a crime prohibiting the removal of human remains; however, more importantly, the case is a good illustration of Massachusetts constitutional law as it pertains to statements given to police.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, police officers received a tip that there were three human skulls on the defendant’s front porch. Within a few hours, police arrived at the defendant’s home to question him about the skulls. The defendant explained that he was a priest in the Palo Mayombe religion, and that he purchased the remains from an unknown man in Worcester for $3,000 apiece. Without prompting, the defendant also showed the officer a photograph of the remains in the tomb, before they had been removed. The photographs indicated that the cemetery was in Worcester. The officer did not arrest the defendant.

Later, other officers returned to further question the defendant. One of the officers learned that a cemetery in Worcester had been broken into, and several human remains were taken. The defendant agreed to go to the police station to give a statement. He was not given his Miranda warnings, and spoke to detectives for two hours. However, at the end of the interview, the defendant refused to sign the interview. At the end of the interview, detectives determined they had probable cause to arrest the defendant.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts homicide case, discussing the defendant’s motion to suppress images taken from a digital camera found in the defendant’s apartment. Ultimately, the court concluded that the admission of the photos was not improper, and affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant and the victim were involved in an on-and-off romantic relationship that was, on some level, characterized by domestic violence. In fact, the defendant had pending domestic violence charges when he was arrested for her murder.

Evidently, the defendant was out at a bar when he told another bar patron that his girlfriend was dead in his apartment. The next day, the patron called the police, who spoke with the defendant. The defendant admitted he killed his girlfriend. Police officers obtained a warrant to search his apartment, where they found a digital camera. On the camera were graphic photographs of the victim with the defendant’s hands around her neck. Police then obtained a second search warrant to search the contents of the camera. While officers had already searched through the camera and reviewed the photos, this fact was left out of the warrant application.

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Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Boston drug case involving the defendant’s motion for additional discovery related to the confidential informant that police officers used to conduct the pre-arranged buys that lead to the defendant’s arrest.

Police officers frequently use confidential informants, rather than an undercover police officer, as a part of their investigation when they suspect someone is selling drugs out of a house. Typically, police officers will give the confidential informant marked bills and wait in a car and watch as the confidential informant approaches the defendant’s home and engages in a transaction. The confidential informant will then return to the officers, bringing them whatever the defendant allegedly sold to them. However, often, the transactions occur inside the home, beyond the sight of the police officers. Based on their observations, police officers will then complete an affidavit for a search warrant, and search the home.

Of course, from the defense perspective, the use of confidential informants is concerning. First, these informants are often drug users themselves, who may have reason to curry favor with local police officers. Also concerning is the fact that it is not uncommon for confidential informants to be paid for their services, raising the issue of bias. In other words, maybe a confidential informant is making up allegations to make a few dollars. Finally, as a general rule, the identity of a confidential informant is protected, thus, they will not appear at trial and the defendant will not have an opportunity to confront them.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous effect on the country’s ability to function. Schools, stores, and government functions have all been temporarily shut down. For the most part, this includes the Massachusetts court system. In fact, thousands of people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial have had their trial dates pushed back due to the pandemic. Most recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court explained that no jury trials would be held until September, at the earliest.

Any delay in a Massachusetts criminal trial can be anxiety-inducing, as defendants often look forward to having their day in court where, hopefully, they can prove their innocence. For those defendants in state or local custody, the delay caused by COVID-19 is even more impactful, extending the amount of time they are away from friends, family, and employment opportunities. This is especially concerning because these individuals enjoy the presumption of innocence under the United States Constitution. However, despite that fact, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court previously stated that the delay attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic would not count as calculable time under the state’s speedy trial laws. Thus, while most cases must be brought within 12 months of arraignment, under the current conditions, this period has been extended.

In a recent opinion, the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court extended its application of the above principle, holding that COVID-19-related delays will similarly not count towards the limits on pre-trial incarceration. The case arose when judges in three separate cases heard motions from defendants for pre-trial release. In each of these motions, the defendant asked the judge to consider the delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic when calculating the number of days they had been in custody. Thus, under the court’s recent ruling, the days a defendant is held in custody pending trial from March 13, 2020, to September 8, 2020, will not count towards any actual calculation of pre-trial incarceration. The practical effect of this ruling is that many who are awaiting trial, and may otherwise have been entitled to release due to the delay, must stay in custody until they can afford to post bail or reach their trial date.

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