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SJC Clarifies Habitual Offender Statute

balance-1172786-300x204In a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision – Commonwealth v. Garvey – the SJC In affirmed the dismissal of the habitual offender portions of the defendant’s indictments and, in the process, clarified subsection (a) of the statute. In the decision, the SJC specifically ruled that that in order to procure enhanced sentencing of a defendant under the habitual offender statute (G.L. c.279, §25[a]), the Commonwealth must prove that the requisite prior convictions with qualifying sentences arose “from separate incidents or episodes of criminal behavior.”

The background was as follows. “After returning eight indictments relating to the charged drug crimes, the grand jury received evidence concerning the defendant’s prior convictions, which the prosecutor introduced to establish probable cause for enhanced penalties to be available in relation to these drug offenses. In particular, the grand jury heard that on March 13, 2002, the defendant was convicted of four offenses, each described in a separate count of a single indictment, and was sentenced to at least three years in State prison on each offense…. The grand jurors did not, however, hear any evidence as to when these offenses occurred. The grand jury also heard that on December 5, 2002, the defendant was convicted of distribution of a class B substance and conspiracy to violate the controlled substance act, but they did not hear any testimony related to sentencing on those offenses.” “The defendant moved to dismiss the habitual offender portions of the indictments, arguing that the grand jury heard no evidence that his four underlying 2002 convictions arose from different criminal episodes. [The] judge allowed the motion in a margin endorsement, writing that ‘to be a[] habitual offender, one must have at least two prior convictions with qualifying sentences resulting from separate, prior criminal episodes’ (emphasis in original; quotation omitted). The Commonwealth appealed from the judge’s order.”

In its decision agreeing with the trial court judge, the SJC stated that “although the issue ha[d] not been directly raised” in previous Massachusetts appellate decisions, “we and the Appeals Court have assumed that [c.279,] §25(a)[,] requires that the underlying convictions be for ‘separate’ or ‘distinct’ criminal acts committed on different occasions.” The SJC concluded that dismissal of the habitual offender portions of the defendant’s indictments in this case was required because “the Commonwealth failed to provide the grand jury with sufficient evidence to support [those] portions of the indictments.” “[T]he grand jury heard no evidence that would allow them to conclude that the defendant’s prior convictions stemmed from separate criminal episodes…. [A]fter the grand jury returned indictments on the new substantive drug charges, they heard testimony regarding four of the defendant’s prior convictions.” However, “they heard no information regarding when the offenses took place or how they were related to each other. Therefore, they would not have been able to determine whether the defendant’s prior convictions arose out of separate episodes or out of a single criminal incident or spree. As a consequence, without hearing any evidence of separate criminal events, the grand jury could not conclude that there was probable cause to believe that an essential element of the habitual offender statute existed.”

Habitual offender charges are extremely serious. If you or a loved one is charged under the habitual offender statute, you will need an experienced attorney who is up to date on the law, and who will make sure any enhanced penalties were properly charged. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is a skilled and dedicated defense attorney who has helped countless clients obtain favorable results in their cases. Call him for a free consultation today.