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Articles Posted in Important SJC Decisions

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decides Parent-Child Testimony Privilege

In Massachusetts evidence law, there are limits on who may give testimony in various civil and criminal proceedings. One set of limitations is found in a Massachusetts statute that applies to the testimony of a parent or minor child against another in a criminal, delinquency, and youthful offender proceedings where the victim is not a family member and does not reside in the household. But can a parent testify against their own child? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Eli Vigiani, which asks the question of whether under Massachusetts law, a parent is disqualified from being called to testify in their child’s defense at an evidentiary hearing for a motion to suppress. 

This case concludes that while Massachusetts law prevents the prosecution from calling in the child’s parents to testify against the child, it does allow for the child to call in their parents as a witness for their defense, and in turn, the state is permitted to cross-examine the parents. 

The Sixth Amendment promises the right to confront an adverse witness. However, when the witness is on the other end of a 911 call, this can lead to tricky constitutional issues. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will soon decide a confrontation clause issue in Commonwealth v. Rand. Hopefully, the SJC will correct an error made by the lower court regarding Rand’s right to confrontation as defendant’s in domestic assault and battery cases have seen their right to confront their accuser diminished by recent Court decisions.

What happened in the Rand case?

This case arises out of a domestic dispute. Defendant Rand and his former girlfriend Otilia Cradock are parents to a young daughter. The couple was on and off, but Rand stayed involved in his daughter’s life, so he was often at Cradock’s home. One night, Cradock and her sister spent the night drinking wine at her apartment. She started to be rude to her sister. Her sister left the apartment. At around 1 in the morning, Cradock reported to police that her boyfriend had assaulted her. She said that he had strangled her until she passed out and urinated. When the 911 operator asked if the boyfriend was still at the home, she responded that he had left.

What type of cell phone information can the police obtain without a warrant?  This is an important question under the 4th amendment that the Massachusetts Supreme Court recently addressed.  Nowadays, nobody leaves their cell-phones out of their sight, and a cell phone is almost an extension of a person’s body.  However, inside of your smartphone are powerful location tracking services, that “ping” your location whenever you are near a cell tower.  The use of this data in criminal cases is controversial, and many would consider it an invasion of privacy.  The Supreme Judicial Court recently decided a murder case involving cell site location information (CSLI) in Commonwealth v. Wilkerson.

What happened in Wilkerson?

The victim in this case was twenty-three year old Kristopher Rosa, who was a longtime rival of one of the defendant’s high school friends, Rhandisyn Lawrence.  Lawrence and the victim had a rivalry that apparently stemmed from both of them dating the same woman, Mendes, who the victim later had a child with.  In 2011, Lawrence and the defendant, Wilkerson, chased Rosa in cars when Rosa and his girlfriend were on the way to his mother’s house.  He was shot in the chest while still driving and pronounced dead from a gunshot wound.  The defendant was convicted of first degree murder of Rosa two years after the incident, when the defendant’s girlfriend called the police.

Uber and Lyft drivers are all over Massachusetts; while the number of people traveling with RideShare has certainly decreased with COVID-19, there are still a significant number of Lyft and Uber drivers on the road.  What happens if you are involved in an accident with Uber or Lyft or have a dispute with one of these companies.  Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided a case that addressed whether the arbitration provision in the Uber contract was enforceable.

Is a Contract Formed When You Create an Uber Account?

 This question was recently decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Christopher P. Kauders & Another vs. Uber Technologies, Inc., & Another. In this case, a couple who had both downloaded Uber on their phones alleged discrimination by Uber against husband, who is legally blind, was refused an Uber ride because he was accompanied by his guard dog. Uber is a widely-used app that allows users to pay for transportation by Uber’s contracted drivers after downloading the app.

The Massachusetts SJC will decide whether putting a home on AirBNB creates a duty to prevent harm that occurs on the property.  What duty of care does an AirBNB owner need to provide?

Nowadays, most of us have some sort of “side hustle.” The internet and apps make having a side hustle easier than ever. The law tends to struggle to keep up with this rapidly changing technology.  The case of  Styller v. Aylwardraises the questions of what duty of care is owed to a renter on AirBNB.

What happened in the Styller case?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided the case of Commonwealth v. Charles Bohigian today holding that a blood draw without the consent of the defendant is inadmissible into evidence.  This case arose out of the Westborough District Court and was transferred to Worcester District Court for trial.

The defendant was charged with OUI causing Serious Bodily Injury.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court stated that it is Constitutional to draw blood without consent as long as an officer has a warrant or exigency circumstances make getting a warrant impractical.  However, the legislature created a statutory framework for getting Blood in the context of an OUI.

Massachusetts statute allows for a person to be involuntarily hospitalized for an extended period of time if a physician or police officer believes that the person is a danger to themselves or others as a result of their mental illness.  In the Matter of J.P., J.P. a mentally ill man appealed his involuntary commitment to a mental hospital, arguing that the lower court impermissibly relied on hearsay evidence in making the order.

What happened in the J.P. case?

J.P. was at the emergency room in a hospital when he was presenting signs of serious mental illness.  He was brought to the hospital after threatening his mother and exhibiting paranoid behavior.  He was then involuntarily committed to Suncoast Behavioral Health.  The attending physician, Dr. Lee said that J.P. was a harm to himself and others as a result of his illness.  Dr. Lee diagnosed J.P. with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

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.

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