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Appeals Court Issues Decision on Trial Court’s Ability to Dismiss Valid Criminal Complaints

gavel-1238036The Appeals Court recently issued a new decision, Commonwealth v. Everett, which clarifies the trial court’s ability to dismiss a valid criminal complaint. In Everett, a Boston Municipal Court judge dismissed a legally valid criminal complaint against the defendant, which charged him with operating a motor vehicle after his license had been revoked, subsequent offense. The dismissal was over the Commonwealth’s objection. In dismissing the complaint, “the judge essentially articulated his view that the prosecution of this defendant would not be desirable, where the defendant had taken the steps necessary to get his license reinstated and was in need of a license to obtain employment.” In reviewing the trial court judge’s decision, however, the Appeals Court stated that “‘the judiciary does not have the power to dismiss an otherwise legally adequate complaint or indictment prior to verdict, finding, or plea, over the objection of the prosecutor.’” The Court added that the “governing principle [here] is that the decision whether or not to prosecute the complaint rests within the sole discretion of the executive branch.”

On appeal, the defendant “assert[ed] [that] the judge erred only in failing to hold a hearing pursuant to Commonwealth v. Brandano, 359 Mass. 332, 337 (1971), prior to dismissing the matter and requested that the case be remanded for a Brandano-type hearing. Under Brandano, a judge was permitted to “dismiss criminal complaints over the Commonwealth’s objection in ‘the interests of public justice’ pursuant to the procedure outlined in … [the case].’” This procedure, commonly referred to as a Brandano motion or hearing, became a familiar practice, especially within the Juvenile, District, and Boston Municipal Court departments.” Some years after the issuance of Brandano, however, the Legislature replaced the Brandano procedure with a statutory alternative for cases arising in the Boston Municipal, District, and Juvenile Court departments, which is laid out under G.L. c.278, §18. Under this statute, which governs the disposition of cases in District and Municipal Court, a dismissal “in the interests of public justice” is not an available option, unless such a dismissal is done in conjunction with the proffer of a guilty plea or an admission to sufficient facts with a request for a continuance without a finding.

Because the Legislature replaced the Brandano procedure with a statutory alternative for cases arising in the Boston Municipal, District, and Juvenile Court departments when it wrote G. L. c.278, §18, the Appeals Court rejected the defendant’s request for a Brandano hearing, stating that it was inapplicable. The Court stated that the defendant did not follow the procedure required by G. L. c.278, §18 – he did not tender a plea of guilty nor an admission to sufficient facts coupled with a request for an alternative disposition such as a continuance without a finding. Therefore, the Court stated that no purpose would be served by remanding for a Brandano hearing.

Unfortunately, the clarification provided by the Appeals Court in this case is not beneficial to defendants – to the contrary, it officially removes a potential avenue for a trial court judge to dismiss a complaint without the consent of the Commonwealth. The inability to request a dismissal in the interests of justice means that a defense attorney’s advocacy and ability to persuasively negotiate with the Commonwealth is all the more important for a favorable result. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is a former assistant district attorney and knows the ins and outs of criminal practice from both sides of the courtroom. Let him put his experience to work for you – call for a free consultation today.