COVID-19 Update: How We Are Serving and Protecting Our Clients
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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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In a recent opinion, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling analyzing sentencing enhancements in crimes committed while in possession of a firearm. The underlying case involved a defendant who was tried and convicted of two counts of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. The defendant was also tried under a Massachusetts law that provides enhanced penalties for those who commit crimes while in possession of a firearm. The statute specifically states that an individual who is found to have committed a crime punishable by imprisonment in state prison while in possession of a firearm must receive at least five years imprisonment in addition to the penalty for the underlying offense. The defendant appealed his conviction under this statute.

The defendant argued that his enhanced penalty could not be based on his underlying convictions for assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. The defendant argued that doing so was contrary to legislative intent and violated principles of double jeopardy. However, the court rejected his argument and denied his appeal. Speaking to legislative intent, the court noted that nothing within the statute prevented the Commonwealth from relying on the defendant’s specific underlying convictions. The court also interpreted the statute as intending to be used exactly as it had been in this case: to create an independent crime punishable by a separate sentence required to be served in addition to the underlying offense.

The court also stated that the defendant’s conviction and sentence did not violate the principles of double jeopardy. The prohibition against double jeopardy protects a person from being punished or tried twice for the same crime. In reaching its conclusion, the court pointed out that the statute creates a separate crime from the underlying root felony. Because the statute creates an entirely different crime from the underlying offense, a separate conviction and sentence do not violate principles of double jeopardy.

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Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Massachusetts gun case discussing the required elements that the prosecution must establish before a judge or jury can return a conviction. Ultimately, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that he lacked knowledge of the specifics of the weapon that subjected it to regulation. Instead, the court held that a defendant need only know that the weapon was a firearm “in the conventional sense of the word.”

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a group of friends were out for the night, stopping by several parties. As they arrived at a hotel after one of the parties, they met up with the defendant. After picking up the defendant, the group then went to another party. The defendant got out of the car, grabbed a weapon that belonged to one of the other occupants, and fired it twice into the air.

Police responded to the scene, but were unable to find the weapon of the bullets. They did, however, find two shell casings for a 9mm bullet. Police were also able to obtain surveillance video footage, showing a man raising an object into the air and then two flashes of light coming from the object. The defendant was arrested and charged with the unlawful possession of a firearm.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the country, the nation’s prisons are quickly becoming hotspots for the virus. Indeed, a recent news article documents the pervasiveness of COVID-19 in state prisons across the country. Massachusetts prisons are no exception. A local news outlet recently reported that more than 150 inmates and staff have contracted the coronavirus in the state’s jails and prisons.

Given this reality, many have raised concerns over the safety of those who are in custody. Since the beginning of the pandemic, civil rights organizations and defense attorneys have tried to get the courts to release as many incarcerated people as possible, with some success. Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down an opinion discussing how lower courts should handle petitions for release in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Court first acknowledged the safety concerns surrounding the continued incarceration of individuals during the pandemic, noting that the “unprecedented and urgent conditions created by the global COVID19 pandemic necessitated judicial action to reduce the population of those held in custody.”

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Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that will have a significant impact on many Massachusetts criminal law cases. The opinion, Kansas v. Glover, presented the court with the question: whether a police officer can reasonably assume that the person who is operating a motor vehicle is that vehicle’s registered owner. The Court answered the question in the affirmative. The case is important because, under the Court’s new ruling, police officers can now pull over a vehicle for no reason other than the owner of that vehicle has an outstanding warrant.

The case arose when a deputy ran the license plate of a pick-up truck to find out that the registered owner’s driver’s license had been revoked. The deputy assumed that the person who was driving the car was the registered owner, and pulled over the vehicle. The deputy was correct, and the defendant was cited for driving on a revoked license.

The defendant argued that the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion to pull him over. Specifically, the defendant claimed that the deputy was relying on a “hunch” when he assumed that the driver of a vehicle was also the vehicle’s registered owner. The defendant also argued that the fact that the registered owner’s license was revoked decreased the likelihood that the driver of the vehicle was the registered owner.

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