These summaries of case decisions are intended for informational purposes only. They are not intended to be interpretations of the law, nor do they encompass the subtleties of each case. Therefore, reference to the original text is indispensable.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Elizabeth de Moll's Summary of "Devlin v. Commonwealth"

Devlin v. Commonwealth
No. 12-P-401

On November 1, 1995, the plaintiff was civilly committed to Bridgewater State Hospital under G. L. c. 123, § 35 on the petition of his wife, who feared he was a danger to himself because of his alcoholism.  He was housed and treated with other civilly committed individuals in the Massachusetts addiction center.  In addition to civilly committed individuals, present at the addiction center were guards and members of the inner perimeter security (IPS) unit.  There were also "trustees," criminal convicts who worked in the civil commitment area various chores.
On November 23, 1995, the plaintiff sought to make a telephone call to his wife. When it was his turn to use the phone, a criminal convict working there told the plaintiff that he would be using the telephone and that the plaintiff could not use it.  The plaintiff then went to a second telephone.  Immediately thereafter and without any warning, the defendant struck the plaintiff in the side of his face. There were many people in the common room that contained the telephones, including a guard's station with two guards in it.  No one in the immediate area responded to the attack.
The plaintiff was eventually taken to the IPS office.  When he told an IPS officer what had happened, the officer told him he was a liar and started putting on tight black leather gloves.  The plaintiff was ordered to strip, with no explanation, and then was told to put his clothes back on.  He ultimately saw a nurse, who concluded that he needed to be seen by a doctor.  Using an expletive, one of the IPS officers said, "Throw him in the cage."  Only after 30 minutes in a holding cell was he transported to Brockton Hospital. The plaintiff lost his eye, because all of the bones on the side of his face were broken and his eye had been punctured. The plaintiff lost sight in his left eye and continued to have pain. 
After trial in the Superior Court, a jury found the Commonwealth liable and returned a verdict in Mr. Devlin's favor in the amount of $450,000.  After a hearing, the trial judge denied motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial, but granted a motion for remittitur and reduced the judgment to $100,000 in accordance with G. L. c. 258, § 2, which provides that public employers shall not be liable for damages in excess of $100,000. The Commonwealth appealed.

SJC Holding:
            The SJC upheld the lower court’s ruling. The court concluded that the Commonwealth lacked discretion to allow the convict into that area in accordance with G. L. c. 123 § 35. Furthermore, the Commonwealth was not entitled to immunity under § 10(j) of the MTCA. The affirmative decision by the Commonwealth to allow convicted criminals to work in the same space where civilly committed individuals were housed was an “original cause” of the plaintiff’s injury. As such the cap on judgments against the Commonwealth did not apply. 

Written 6/28/13

Talyia Hithe's Summary of "Commonwealth v. Silva"

"Commonwealth v. Silva"
83 Mass. App. Ct. 1132 (2013)

            The defendant appealed his conviction for armed assault with intent to rob and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. The defendant appealed on several grounds. The Appeals Court affirmed the conviction.
            The defendant claimed that the evidence presented at both the trial and grand jury stages was insufficient. The Commonwealth presented evidence on the following facts: On the evening of March 8, 20111, the victim was leaving the Montello Commuter Rail station in Brockton when he observed the defendant in the parking lot of a store. As the victim walked towards his home, he was approached by the defendant and another male, both brandishing knives. The defendant and the other assailant demanded money from the victim. The victim repeatedly stated that he had no money. The defendant then stated “Let’s just cut him…” and the victim was stabbed four times by the unknown assailant, once in the leg and tree times in the chest. Both attackers fled and the victim identified the defendant from a photographic array administered by the Brockton police department twelve days later. Under the governing standard of Commowealth v. Latimore, 378 Mass. 671, 676-678, the court found that the evidence was sufficient. In addition, the court found that the grand jury claim was waived because the defendant failed to raise the issue during a pre-trial motion to dismiss.
            The defendant claimed that he was unduly prejudiced by errors the judge made in the jury instructions.  Because there was no objection at trial, the court reviewed the instructions for a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice. The court found that the jury instructions were sufficient to inform the jurors of what they had to consider and there was no substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.
            The defendant claimed that the prosecutor’s closing was improper. During the closing argument, a prosecutor may comment on evidence developed at trial and draw inferences from such evidence. Further, the judge instructed the jury that they were not to view the lawyer’s opening and closing statements as evidence. Therefore, the court found there was no error in the prosecutor’s closing argument.
            The defendant claimed that the judge erred when he did not consult defense counsel after the jury reported they were deadlocked. The court found that the judge did not abuse his discretion when he sent the jury back for further deliberation. Counsel was present when the judge sent the jury back and did not voice an objection or offer any alternative solutions.
            Lastly, the defendant claimed that the judge erred when he allowed photographs into evidence. It is the discretion of a trial judge to determine whether the inflammatory quality of a photograph outweighs its probative values and precludes its admission into evidence. After reviewing the photographs, the judge found that photographs of injuries and some medical procedures were not so inflammatory as to outweigh their probative value.  The court found that the judge did not abuse his discretion in allowing the photographs into evidence.
The defendant’s conviction was affirmed.
Note: This decision was issued by the appeals court pursuant to its Rule 1:28 and therefore may not fully address the facts of the case or the panel’s decisional rationale. Moreover, Rule 1:28 decisions are not circulated to the entire court and, therefore, represent only the views of the panel that decided the case. A summary decision pursuant to Rule 1:28, issued after February 25, 2008, may be cited for its persuasive value but, because of the limitations noted above, not as binding precedent. 

Written 6/30/13

Lianne Henderson's Summary of " Commonwealth v. McGowan"

Commonwealth v. McGowan
464 Mass. 232 (2013)

The defendant was charged with a violation of General Laws c. 140, § 131L(a), for improper storage of a firearm.  The issue is whether  the storage requirements in § 131L(a) are unconstitutional considering the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago  (554 U.S. 570 (2008)), which held that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense in the home and which incorporated the guarantees of the Second Amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment and thereby applying the Second Amendment to the States, respectively.  The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that § 131L(a) falls outside the scope of the Second Amendment because it is consistent with the right to bear arms in self-defense in one’s home and is designed to prevent those who are not licensed to possess or carry firearms from gaining access to firearms.  Therefore, § 131L(a) is not unconstitutional and Massachusetts has the authority to regulate laws for reasons of protecting its citizens’ health, safety, and welfare.

 Written 7/14/13

Lianne Henderson's Summary of "Azbuko v. Commonwealth"

Azbuko v. Commonwealth
463 Mass. 1010 (2012)

Chukwuma E. Azubuko sought relief in the nature of mandamus and was denied by a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.  He previously was ordered to receive permission prior to commencement of any new action due to frivolous filings in the past, and was denied permission to file a complaint due to lack of a cause of action.  One year later, Mr. Azubuko tried to file the complaint in the county court and asked that the matter be remanded to and accepted by the Superior Court.  He failed to show how the Superior Court judge erred in denying his request for permission to file the complaint.  The Supreme Judicial Court found that the judge did not err by denying relief because Mr. Azubuko did not show any basis on which his action could proceed.

Written 6/30/13

Angela Jaimes' Summary of "Commonwealth v. Montoya"

Commonwealth v Montoya

Facts:  The defendant was arrested and indicted on multiple drug related charges after state troopers seized twenty bags of suspected cocaine from his vehicle.  A Superior Court Judge denied the defendant’s subsequent motion to suppress items found in his vehicle and his post-arrest statements.  At trial, two drug certificates were admitted that established the total weight of the bags of cocaine was 39.74 grams and resulted in the defendant’s conviction under G.L. c. 94C § 32E(b) which criminalizes trafficking in an amount over twenty-eight grams.  Defendant Montoya was convicted on two other indictments and appealed both the motion to suppress ruling as well as his convictions. 

Prior to the appeal being docketed, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, overturning prior case law by holding that a drug certificate is testimonial and cannot be admitted at trial without the defendant having the chance to cross-examine the drug certificate analyst.

The defendant advances four claims of error:  (1) his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses was violated due to the absence of the drug certificate analysts at trial; (2) there was no probable cause for his arrest and the judge erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence; (3) his postarrest statements were not voluntary and should have been suppressed; and (4) ineffective trial counsel.

Issue #1:  Was the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right violated?  Because the defendant had not exhausted his direct appeal, the court should consider the rule from Melendez-Diaz and determine whether the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

While the identity of the substance seized could be correctly inferred from all of the evidence at trial, the properly admitted evidence was not so overwhelming as to nullify the impact of the drug certificate error.  In addition, due to the small weight differential between the statute limit and the weight of the bags seized, the impact of the drug certificate error again was not outweighed by properly admitted evidence.  The jury could not have deduced the weight of the bags without the certificate.  The defendant’s convictions are vacated.

Issue #2:  Did the judge err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress?  The defendant’s motions to suppress were not denied in error.  Police had probable cause based on the arresting officer’s experience and the defendant’s actions prior to the arrest.  In addition, there is no additional evidence to suggest the defendant’s post-arrest statements were not voluntary. 

Judgment:  Convictions vacated, verdicts set aside, and the case remanded for a new trial.

Written 7/17/13