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SJC Issues New Case on Pre-trial Detention for Dangerousness

jail-1211438The Supreme Judicial Court recently issued a new decision on two companion cases – Commonwealth v. Diggs and Commonwealth v. Soto. The decision addresses pre-trial detention under the dangerousness statute (G.L. c.276, §58A) and under what circumstances the Commonwealth may move for dangerousness. This statute specifically allows the Commonwealth to move for a “dangerousness hearing” where a defendant is held “under arrest” and charged with a felony that involves the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force as an element of the offense. During the hearing, the court must make a determination as to whether the defendant is in fact “dangerous” under the statute – i.e., that no conditions of release will reasonably assure the safety of any other person or the community. In the event that the defendant is found to be dangerous, the court may elect to release him with certain conditions. Alternatively, the court may determine that even the imposition of conditions would be insufficient to ensure the safety of another person or the community, and therefore order the defendant to be held without bail for up to 120 days.

The background as to Diggs was as follows. “[He] allegedly threatened to burn down a house [in Watertown] … while the [residents were] inside.” “[A] criminal complaint issued charging [him] with threatening to commit a crime” and the Watertown police obtained an arrest warrant. Initially, the police were unable to locate Diggs to execute the warrant. However, he came to the Commonwealth’s attention several months later, when he was being held on a probation detainer in an unrelated matter in Plymouth County. “When authorities from the … house of correction [in that county] transported Diggs to the District Court to appear for arraignment on those charges, the Commonwealth moved for pretrial detention based on dangerousness. Diggs argued that he was not subject to pretrial detention because, although he was in the custody of Plymouth County on charges of a probation violation, he had not been arrested by the Watertown police in connection with the complaint charging him with threatening to commit a crime, and thus was not ‘held under arrest’ for an enumerated offense [under §58A] at the time of his arraignment. The judge rejected Diggs’s challenge to the legality of the proceedings, conducted a dangerousness hearing pursuant to … §58A, and ordered [that] Diggs [be] held in pretrial detention without bail.”

The background as to Soto was as follows. He was arrested for allegedly assaulting and threatening his girl friend. After he was booked at the police station, he posted bail. “Two days later, a criminal complaint issued charging [him] with the offenses alleged…. [W]hen Soto appeared in court as required, the Commonwealth moved for an order of pretrial detention under the dangerousness statute. Soto argued that he could not be detained because he had been released on bail following his arrest, and therefore he was not ‘held under arrest’ when he appeared for arraignment. The judge rejected Soto’s challenge to the legality of the proceedings, conducted a dangerousness hearing, and ordered [that] Soto [be] held without bail pursuant to … §58A(4).” On appeal, the “defendants argue[d] that neither of them was ‘held under arrest’ within the meaning of … §58A(4) … when they appeared in court to be arraigned, and therefore that they could not lawfully be subjected to a pretrial detention hearing,” because they were not “held in physical custody by a legal authority.”

In its decision rejecting the defendants’ contention and affirming the orders for pretrial detention of defendants Diggs and Soto under the statute, the SJC held “that where a criminal defendant has been arrested or is subject to an outstanding arrest warrant for an enumerated offense, [he] may be subject to pretrial detention under … §58A, even if [he] is not held in custody following the arrest, so long as the dangerousness hearing takes place ‘immediately upon the person’s first appearance before the [trial] court.’ [§58A(4)].” The SJC stated, “[T]he phrase ‘held under arrest,’ within the meaning of … §58A(4), refers to any person who has been arrested [for an enumerated offense] or for whom an arrest warrant has issued…. Under this construction, both defendants were ‘held under arrest,’ and therefore properly were subject to a dangerousness hearing pursuant to … §58A(4), where each hearing was held ‘immediately upon the person’s first appearance before the [trial] court.’” The SJC opined that in light of the explicit “purpose [of the statute] to protect the public, it is unlikely that the Legislature intended to draw arbitrary distinctions between individuals who have been released on bail by a magistrate, those who are arrested and in physical custody, and those for whom an arrest warrant has issued, but has not been executed.”

Being held pursuant to a finding of dangerous has an extremely significant impact on an individual because it may result in a 120 day detention. Such a detention not only potentially disrupts a person’s housing, employment, and personal relationships, but may also induce a defendant to plead guilty simply to get out of custody even when a case is defensible. Investigation, making sound strategic decisions, and mounting the best possible defense to avoid such a detention may make all the difference. If you or a loved one has been charged with a new crime and are facing a dangerousness hearing, you will need a skilled and experienced attorney to fight for your liberty. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has successfully conducted many many dangerousness hearings and always makes sure that his clients get the best defense possible. Call him for a free consultation today.