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Over the last half-century, the widespread use of global positioning systems (GPS) technology has supplemented the toolkits used by law enforcement and prosecutors for investigating and prosecuting crimes. Although GPS technology is widespread and generally accepted as accurate for most location monitoring applications, the use of the technology by prosecutors as evidence in criminal trials may not always be permitted. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently reversed a lower appellate decision that had allowed the Commonwealth to introduce GPS evidence to prove a defendant’s speed and location around the scene of a crime.

In the recently decided appeal, the defendant was accused of armed assault with intent to murder after he allegedly fired a gun into a moving car in an incident in September of 2015. Although there were no direct eyewitnesses to the crime, witnesses described a man meeting the description of the defendant in the area of the crime shortly before the shooting and also fleeing after. Because the defendant was on federal probation for a previously committed crime, he was wearing an ankle-mounted GPS monitor at the time of the crime. Law enforcement investigators assessed the GPS monitor data to determine the defendant’s location and his speed of movement around the time that the crime was committed, and he was arrested for the shooting.

The defendant was charged with armed assault with intent to murder. At trial, the prosecution successfully admitted the evidence from the GPS monitor in the case against him against defense objections. The defendant was convicted of the charges and ultimately appealed the evidentiary rulings and his conviction to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The defense argued that the GPS data pertaining to the defendant’s location and speed at the time of the offense was not sufficiently reliable to be admitted at trial. The high court agreed with the defense in part, ruling that the GPS data from the particular model of ankle monitor the defendant was wearing had not been properly proven or formally tested to accurately measure the speed of someone wearing the unit. The high court rejected the defense’s argument that the location data was not reliable, as it had been formally tested and was generally accepted as accurate in the legal and scientific communities. After determining that the evidence of the defendant’s speed was not admissible, the court reversed the defendant’s assault conviction, and the prosecution will need to seek a retrial of the defendant if they desire a conviction.

In certain instances, a person charged with a Massachusetts criminal offense may wish to appeal a court ruling before his or her case has gone to trial and resulted in a final conviction. Such appeals of intermediate rulings, known as interlocutory appeals, can be useful in preventing a defendant’s rights from being infringed upon before a trial, which could place the defendant at a potentially irreparable disadvantage at trial. The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently addressed an interlocutory appeal filed by a Massachusetts man who had been charged with several crimes involving domestic violence.

The defendant who filed the recently decided appeal is a Massachusetts man who was charged with several alleged crimes that occurred over the course of a few months and involved the same victim, who was a domestic partner of the defendant. Prosecutors sought to try the defendant for all of the alleged crimes in a single trial, claiming that the alleged crimes were interconnected enough for them to be tried together. The defendant opposed the prosecution’s motion, asking the court to hear the charges separately.

The trial court granted the prosecution’s motion to join the charges, resulting in the defendant filing an interlocutory appeal with the state supreme court. Arguing that he would be prejudiced by charging the alleged crimes together, the defendant attempted to have the trial judge’s decision to grant the motion reversed. In a summary and unpublished opinion, the high court rejected the defendant’s appeal. Under Massachusetts law, interlocutory appeals in criminal cases are limited to scenarios in which the defendant would be unfairly prejudiced by a court’s failure to consider an error before a final judgment was issued. In this instance, the court decided that the trial court’s decision to grant the prosecution’s motion, if erroneous, could be appealed if and after the defendant is convicted of the alleged crimes, and he will not suffer any prejudice by waiting until after trial to make such an appeal. As a result of the Supreme Court decision, the defendant’s trial will proceed without further interruption.

The Supreme Judicial Court recently reversed a defendant’s Massachusetts assault and battery conviction, finding that the trial court made a prejudicial error in excluding the defendant’s expert witness. After an altercation with two men, the court indicted the appellant on two counts of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. The defendant argued that he acted in self-defense after one of the men attacked him based on racial animus. To substantiate his claim, the defendant proposed two expert witnesses that could testify that the man had a tattoo of a symbol affiliated with a white supremacist group. The judge excluded the witnesses, and the defendant was convicted.

On appeal, the court considered whether the trial judge incorrectly excluded the defendant’s experts. At trial, the defendant attempted to introduce two experts: one with a doctorate in cultural anthropology who studies the nationalist movement, and another with a doctorate in educational leadership and is an expert on gangs. The defendant argued that the judge’s finding that the experts were not reliable was an abuse of discretion.

Under Massachusetts law, expert testimony works to aid jurors in interpreting evidence that is outside common knowledge. The Daubert-Lanigan standard generally governs the admission of expert testimony. The testimony must stem from a “reliable foundation” and be “relevant to the task at hand” to meet this standard. Evidence is relevant if it tends to make a fact more or less probable.

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Massachusetts robbery case. The court’s opinion involved the defendant’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence used by the jury to convict him of the offense. After hearing the defendant’s appeal, the court reversed his conviction, finding that there was a lack of evidence supporting a finding that the defendant armed himself with a weapon before entering the home.

In any Boston criminal case, the elements of the crime define the offense. Before a judge or jury can convict someone of a crime, the prosecution must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. When a defendant argues that the prosecution failed to meet its burden in proving its case, they are challenging the “sufficiency of the evidence.”

The Facts of the Case

Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts burglary case involving the defendant’s challenge to certain evidence recovered by police during their investigation. More specifically, the defendant claimed that the evidence the police relied on to obtain a search warrant was tainted because they discovered the evidence through an illegal entry into his home. Agreeing with the defendant, the court reversed the lower courts’ decisions to deny his motion to suppress, remanding the case for further proceedings.

The Facts of the Case

This case arose after a string of residential burglaries. When investigating the crimes, detectives located evidence suggesting that the defendant and his wife were involved in the burglaries. Before obtaining a warrant, the detectives went to the defendant’s home, knocked on the door, and spoke with the defendant’s wife. The detectives inaccurately told the defendant’s wife that they had a warrant for her arrest.

Upon hearing this news, the defendant’s wife allowed the detective into the home, where they located some of the stolen items. The detectives also found the defendant inside. Both the defendant and his wife were arrested. At the station, the defendant’s wife admitted to her involvement in the burglaries.

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Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion affirming a lower court’s decision not to reduce a defendant’s bail as he awaits trial for several Massachusetts sex offenses, including indecent assault and battery on a person age fourteen or older. The case highlights the challenges many defendants face—even during the COVID-19 pandemic—when trying to secure pretrial release.

Under state and federal law, courts must only consider certain factors when setting a defendant’s bail. In general, bail should not be a punishment to keep someone incarcerated while they await trial. Instead, bail should be used to secure their presence at trial. When determining what amount of bail is appropriate, courts consider the following factors:

  • The nature of the offense;

Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts murder case. The case arose after three individuals were murdered, and their dismembered bodies were found in plastic bags. The Commonwealth’s case hinged on the premise that the defendant and two others murdered the victims to prevent them from testifying against one of the accomplices. The parties were tried separately and convicted of three counts of first-degree murder.

Amongst several contentions, the defendant argued that evidence of his membership in the Aryan Brotherhood was impermissible. He contended that the evidence carried a risk of substantial unfair prejudice and outweighed any probative value. Specifically, he argued that the judge’s ruling permitting anatomical drawings, photographs of weapons and evidence of his membership in the Brotherhood was an abuse of discretion. In response, the Commonwealth alleged that the evidence was relevant and admissible. The court focused on the evidence implicating the parties in the murder.

Under the Massachusetts Rules of Evidence, the law prohibits the prosecution from introducing “prior bad act” evidence to illustrate a defendant’s bad character. However, the evidence is admissible for non-propensity purposes. Courts maintain a great deal of discretion when determining whether evidence is unfairly prejudicial to a defendant. Here, the Commonwealth argued that the evidence was properly admitted for two non-propensity-related reasons. First, the evidence shows how one of the accomplices induced another to help bury the victims’ remains; second, how the defendant’s admission to another member of the Aryan Brotherhood enhances the jailhouse informant’s credibility.

In a recent opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated a Massachusetts defendant’s possession of a firearm conviction. The case arose when a state trooper followed the defendant’s vehicle and activated his lights to stop the defendant for driving five miles over the speed limit. The defendant sped, parked, and fled while the police pursued him. When the police reached the defendant, he threw something from his pocket into a dumpster. Officials later recovered a baggie of crack cocaine in the dumpster, and a vehicle search revealed several items, including a pistol with several rounds of inserted ammunition. After reading the defendant his Miranda rights, a police officer inquired about the items in the vehicle, and the defendant stated that he ran because of the drugs and he did not know about the handgun.

Amongst other issues, the defendant argued that under Commonwealth v. Brown, a defendant could only be convicted of possessing a loaded firearm, if the Commonwealth proves that the defendant knew that the firearm was loaded. The defendant argued that this decision is retroactive, and therefore the Commonwealth did not meet their evidentiary burden.

In most cases, Massachusetts courts do not analyze whether a decision applies retroactively or prospectively. Generally, courts retain discretion to apply the decision only prospectively. Courts will look to whether the retroactive application is consistent with the rule and whether it would result in significant “hardship or inequity.” In this case, the court did not find any reason to only apply the decision prospectively. In analyzing the statute, the court found that the element of knowledge required by the lesser included offense of unlawful possession of a loaded firearm, must be evident to convict the defendant of the greater offense. Moreover, the court reasoned that the Commonwealth’s purported hardship from their lack of warning that they needed to prove the knowledge element is outweighed by the risk that the defendant would be unlawfully convicted of a crime.

In a recent opinion, a state appellate court vacated a jury verdict that found the defendant guilty of a Massachusetts drug offense. The jury convicted the defendant of distributing and of committing the crime within one hundred feet of a public park. The defendant appealed the second portion of the conviction, contending that prosecutors did not prove that the park was “public” in accordance with the statute.

According to the record, the police detective solicited sellers on an online forum, purporting to look for SKI, which is a street term for cocaine. The defendant responded, and the two communicated through text and agreed on the terms of the deal. The detective asked the defendant to get together in a lot near a highway. When the detective arrived, the transaction took place, and the defendant was arrested after departing the meeting location. The location was a parking lot of a public recreation area with vast acreage. Some testimony explained that the town owned portions of the park; however, there was no evidence of which specific areas the government owned. The defendant did not contest her involvement in the transaction; however, she argued that, under the law, the location was not in a public park, as defined by the relevant statute.

Under the relevant law, a “public park” is one that is open to the public and owned or maintained by a governmental entity. The known definition of a “park,” is a “tract of land maintained by a city or town”, for public recreation or beauty. Case law maintains that inquiries regarding ownership and maintenance of a park are a jury question. Questions regarding whether a park is “public” require courts to review the word’s plain meaning.

Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated a lower court’s order permitting a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence. The Massachusetts criminal case arose when police arrested the defendant in connection with a fatal shooting. According to the court’s opinion, officers confiscated the defendant’s cell phone and then obtained a search warrant to search it for evidence. Before trial, the judge granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the cell phone evidence. The judge reasoned that the police obtained the warrant without establishing a sufficient nexus between the murder and the defendant’s cell phone. She did not address whether the search was “sufficiently particular,” but she noted that the search was not “limited in time.” The Commonwealth appealed and the court reviewed whether there was probable cause and if the search exceeded the scope of the warrant.

The Fourth Amendment and Massachusetts Declaration of Rights require that a magistrate determine whether probable cause exists before issuing a search warrant. There must be a “substantial basis” that lead a fact finder to determine that the items sought are related to the criminal activity under investigation, and in the place to be searched when the warrant is issued. Essentially, along with probable cause, the government must establish a “nexus” between the item sought and the alleged crime. Probable cause inquiries are fact-based, and courts resolve them on a case-by-case basis.

In this case, an eyewitness described seeing a male standing over the victim then fleeing the scene in a light-colored vehicle with an out-of-state license plate. Another witness saw a light-colored sedan driving quickly down a street. He then saw the car’s occupants moving around in the car, as if they were changing their clothes. When police arrived, they found the three men, including the defendant, sitting in the car. After realizing that one of the men matched the shooter’s description, police removed all three men from the car. At the time, the defendant was talking on his cell phone. Officers discovered a firearm that had recently been fired. Moreover, the victim’s cell phone contained a violent conversation between the victim and a contact believed to be one of the occupants. After that, the detective received a warrant to search the defendant’s cell phone. The warrant did not have any date restrictions.

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