Supreme Judicial Court ruling protects victims, public
Pittsfield — The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with District Attorney Andrea Harrington and ruled on Monday that a trial court judge may extend pretrial holds on some defendants to protect the community and victims because of a delay in jury trials.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office previously argued for the court to create such a balancing test that emphasizes case-specific circumstances, local conditions and progression toward resuming jury trials to find the balance between a defendant’s due process rights and public and victim safety.
The Supreme Judicial Court took up the matter in Commonwealth v. Scott Smith and consolidated with two other appeals from in the state.
Previously, the District Court ordered the defendant in the matter of Commonwealth v. Scott Smith to be held pretrial after being found dangerous in a domestic violence case and subsequently violating the conditions of his pretrial release when he was charged with possession with intent to distribute a class B substance.
The court scheduled the trial for April but the Trial Court delayed all jury trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 11, a justice of the District Court released the defendant over the district attorney’s objection.
The district attorney argued that the court should extend the defendant’s release date because of court closures. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the district attorney and overruled the District Court judge’s order that he be released.
The Supreme Judicial Court found that the length of time defendants are held pretrial under dangerousness or bail revocation statutes during the COVID-19 pandemic is excluded from limitations posed on both of those statutes.
“This decision provides the right process in determining pretrial detention during these unprecedented times. We cannot put victims and the public at an additional risk just because the court delayed jury trials,” Harrington said. “I thank the justices for hearing the argument and coming to a determination that balances public safety and due process. My office will hold these individuals accountable through the jury trial process as soon as the courts can safely reconvene juries.”
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office appealed the lower court’s finding, arguing that the judge did not correctly apply the law and stressed the urgency of holding defendants accountable through jury trials as soon as possible. The court expects to resume jury trials in September.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office recognizes that there must be limits to pretrial detention, implemented policies to limit the number of individuals held on low-level charges, and is now working with the court to safely resume jury trials to bring defendants to justice as soon as possible.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office’s bail policy already reserves pretrial incarceration only for those who pose a danger to the community or individuals and the office seeks reasonable conditions of release for the majority of defendants arraigned.
However, there are indicators that domestic violence and child abuse increased significantly because of the stressors associated with the pandemic.
Pittsfield data showed that domestic assault quadrupled compared to this time last year and the rate of threats increased nearly tenfold.
Mandated reporters are seeing fewer children, putting children at a heightened risk of abuse. The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office received 52% fewer referrals during the pandemic than this time last year.
In March, the SJC acted in response to an emergency petition calling for the reduction in population inside prisons, jails and houses of correction filed by the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the ACLU of Massachusetts when infectious disease experts warned of devastating effects an outbreak of COVID-19 would have in prisons and jails.
Harrington then negotiated with a special master appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court and criminal justice agencies across that state to secure protections for victims and the community, specifically regarding domestic violence and child abuse, by excluding those defendants from a presumption of release.
That order provides individuals held pretrial for certain nonviolent crimes the presumption of release on personal recognizance and urges district attorney offices and defense counsel to come to agreed-upon conditions of release.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office proactively encouraged attorneys for defendants held pretrial on bail set by a clerk magistrate and facing nonviolent charges to file motions for release due to the public health challenges posed by COVID-19.
The office assented to the release of several defense counsel motions to release defendants held pre-trial on low-level charges.
Trial Court judges ruled on the defense motions for release.