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Articles Posted in Important SJC Decisions

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made it easier for defendant to show race improperly played a role in prosecutors using a peremptory challenge on a juror by eliminating the requirement that a defendant show a pattern of conduct in excluding minority jurors.  Prosecutors no longer get a free opportunity to strike one juror based on race because other were kept on the jury.  This is an important victory preserving the right to a fair trial and making sure all voices are heard in the jury room.    The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court changed the standard for challenging peremptory strikes in Massachusetts state court. The Supreme Judicial Court has adopted the standard of Batson v. Kentucky, “retiring” the language of Commonwealth v. Soares.

            The defendant in Commonwealth v. Sanchez challenged the prosecution’s peremptory strike in which a nineteen year old African American was removed from the jury. The trial judge upheld the peremptory strike. The defendant appealed. After losing his state appeal, the defendant applied for federal habeas corpus relief. There, the judge noted that the Massachusetts standard for challenging peremptory strikes in Soares was harder for defendants to meet than Batson. Still, defendant was denied habeas relief. Defendant then moved for a new trial in state court, which was granted. The Commonwealth appealed.

A Pattern of Discrimination is no longer required when challenging Race Based use of Peremptory Challenges

         Massachusetts Criminal Defense Lawyer must continue to exercise preemptory challenges when prosecutors attempt to exclude minority jurors.  A criminal defense is entitled a a jury that represents a cross-section of the community.  Cultural stereotypes are reinforced when prosecutors are allowed to rely on them to exclude jurors based on race.  The case of Commonwealth v. Dennis Rosa-Roman raises these issues.

What happened in the Rosa-Roman Case?  

On August 26, 2011, Amanda Plasse was found stabbed to death in her Chicopee apartment. Dennis Rosa-Roman was arrested for this murder, and found guilty. Although he appealed, his conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Judicial Court.  In his appeal, Rosa-Roman alleged irregularities in the jury selection process. Specifically, he alleged that a Hispanic female and an African-American female were improperly excluded by the prosecution by use of peremptory strikes (strikes not for cause) due to their race. When such an objection is raised, the trial court must conduct an inquiry as to whether there are adequate, genuine group-neutral reasons for the peremptory strike. The trial court did so; as will be seen below, the defense disagreed with the trial court’s rulings.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court decided the case of Commonwealth v. Edward Long today.  The decision lowers the burden to prove racial profiling in traffic stops.  The decision is very important because it will help eliminate racial profiling in traffic stops and move our country toward greater racial equality.

The case of Edward Long involved a young black male being stopped for not having a proper inspection sticker on the car he was in.  Once he was stopped for the traffic infraction, officers discovered he had a warrant, searched the car and found a hand gun.  Long moved to suppress the evidence of the hand gun, arguing that he was stopped based on his race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  During the Motion to Suppress hearing, he presented a compelling statistical case of racial disparity in traffic stops.

The motion judge denied the motion despite the overwhelming statistical evidence he presented.  The Massachusetts SJC found that the standard previously used by the Court to prove racial bias in traffic stops imposed too high a burden on defendants, making Equal Protection of the law an illusory concept.

The Tragic death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed shine a new light on two major Massachusetts Supreme Court cases involving Race and how our Constitution is going to be interpreted.

The tragic death of George Floyd involves shocking actions that are likely to result in murder charges being filed against the officers involved. As a result of this injustice, protests are taking place in major cities with a major incident of violence in Minneapolis as a police station was set on fire.

From what I have seen of the video, it does not appear that Floyd was any type of threat to the officers.  There was simply no justification for having a knee to his neck; This method of restraining someone is not taught in police trainings and other police officers have voiced their disapproval of the officers’ actions.  From what we know, the video evidence presents an overwhelming case of police brutality with no justification.

Gun crimes in Massachusetts often involve issues of whether there was a Constitutional basis for police action.  Here are some common legal issues:

  1.  Was there Reasonable suspicion to stop your car;
  2. if there was reasonable suspicion, was there a basis to order you from the car;

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case of Commonwealth v. Bohigian on February 10, 2020, dealing with the issue of the admissibility of a blood test in a OUI case involving Serious Bodily injury.  The case arose out of the Westboro District Court.

What is Serious Bodily Injury?  

Serious Bodily injury is defined as creating a substantial risk of death, involves total disability, the loss of any bodily function for a substantial period of time or involves substantial impairment of any bodily function for a substantial period of time.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court will address the issue of when a seizure occurred in the case of Commonwealth v. Evelyn.  The Evelyn case is SJC-12808 and was argued on January 7, 2020.

This case involved a young black man running from the police while the police were investigating a shooting in the Roxbury section of Boston.  This decision will have important implication for how black males are treated by the police and what it means for the police to have reasonable suspicion.

Under the United States Constitution, the US Supreme Court has interpreted the 4thAmendment to find that if a defendant runs, there is not seizure until the defendant submits to the authority of the police.  The United States Supreme Court announced this rule in the case of California v. Hodari D, 499 U.S. 621 (1991).  In that case, the defendant fled and the United States Supreme Court held that he was not seized until the police physically stopped him.  While running, the defendant threw cocaine from his pocket.  If there was no reasonable suspicion prior to the flight, the evidence would have been suppressed, but since the court held that the defendant was not seized until he was stopped, the court declined to suppress the evidence.  The Massachusetts SJC does not follow this rule as State Court are free to interpret their State Constitution different from how the US Supreme Court interprets the United States Constitution.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments on March 3rd in the case of Commonwealth v. Edward Long, SJC-12868, that deal with the issue of disparity treatment and discriminatory enforcement of traffic laws by the Boston police.  In this case, the defense lawyer presented a compelling statistical case that race played a role in the traffic stop.  Under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Article 1 Section 10 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, a defendant who shows discriminatory enforcement of the laws can have the case dismissed.

What happened in the Long Case?  

The Long case involved two officers on the gang unit who were essentially profiling cars, finding minor reasons to stop the car, with the hopes of discovering further evidence that would lead to an arrest.  Two officers were involved in the stop of the defendant, Officer Rodriguez and Lopes.  The defendant was stopped for an expired inspection sticker after the officers randomly ran his plate, according to their testimony at the motion hearing.  Officer Rodriguez testified that giving traffic citation was not a primary concern of the gang unit; he testified that he gave out 5 citation out of 1000 cars that he stopped for traffic violations.  He testified a lot of arrests start out as average traffic stops.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the trial court’s decision to allow two witnesses’ identification of a robbery suspect as admissible evidence despite the lack of protocol and questions surrounding the identifications’ reliability.  The SJC alternated the procedures going forward requiring an instruction prior to the identification as in Line up identifications. The case adopting this new rule is Commonwealth v. Christian German decided November 13, 2019.

The case involved a robbery that occurred as a restaurant owner and three employees were leaving the restaurant late at night. As the women exited the restaurant, one of them got in the front seat of a waiting taxi. The other two employees waited as the owner locked the door. A man approached the three women standing outside of the restaurant, demanding their belongings. While one of the women threw her belongings on the ground, the owner ran around the corner to her vehicle to call 911. The robber then followed the other two women across the street, continuing to demand their property. Men on a nearby rooftop yelled at the robber, and the robber fired a gun in their direction and then left. When police arrived, two of the women had left in the taxi, while the owner and one employee remained to speak to police. After searching the area, officers found the suspect and detained him. One officer told the owner and employee that officers had detained a man, although they did not know if he was the robber, and that they needed witnesses to indicate whether or not he was the robber. While the officer wanted to transport the women one at a time to see the detained suspect, the women insisted that they would not go unless they stayed together and if assured that the suspect would not be able to see them.  The officer acquiesced and drove the two women to where the man was detained. Without any prompting, upon the officer pointing the police cruiser’s headlights at the suspect, both women simultaneously stated that the suspect was the robber and that they were 100% certain.

At trial, defense counsel argued that the women’s identification was improper where the women identified the man while sitting in a police cruiser together, not separate, and where the police officer did not provide adequate instructions prior to eliciting the “showup” identification. Defense counsel also argued that they should be allowed to introduce expert testimony that the witnesses’ degree of certainty of the suspect’s identity was questionable.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allows a juror to sit who was equivocal on whether the jury could be fair and impartial in a case of sexual assault on a child.  You wouldn’t loan money based solely on a borrower’s promise to make payments “to the best of their ability.” A relatively equivocal statement such as this can be sufficient to establish the impartiality of a prospective trial juror. The recent decision in ​Commonwealth v. Rios,​ No.17-P-690,Mass.App.Ct.(November12,2019)(slipop.),illustrates that the credibility of the statement of fairness is equally as important as the statement’s verbiage when determining the impartiality of a prospective juror.

It is without question that individuals charged in criminal matters have a right to have their case heard by an impartial jury. Thus, trial courts have an obligation to ensure that prospective jurors can remain impartial prior to being selected to serve in a particular case. “[A] juror may not stand indifferent” when concerns arise that a prospective juror may make decisions based on issues extraneous to the case. ​ And it is an abuse of the court’s discretion to “empanel a juror who will not state unequivocally that he or she will be impartial.” ​Commonwealth v. Colton,​ 477 Mass. 1, 17 (2017).

Ruling in the Rios Case

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