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Court Rules on Whether Judge May Incarcerate a Defendant Solely for the Purpose of Substance Use Disorder Treatment

various-abusive-drugs-1194951-300x225On January 19, the SJC issued its decision in Commonwealth v. Plasse, ruling that a court may, in certain circumstances, incarcerate a defendant for the sole purpose of addiction treatment.

The background was as follows.  The defendant received a one year continuance without a finding for stealing video games from Walmart. The one year probationary period was ultimately extended for an additional two years (for a total of three years of probation) because the defendant repeatedly tested positive for controlled substances and was kicked out of a number of treatment programs due to lack of compliance. Having already been detained during the course of the probationary period as a result of these various violations, the defendant eventually asked for a committed sentence of nine months and specifically requested to be sent to the Howard Street jail facility in Hampden County, as there was a particular substance use disorder treatment program at the facility in which the defendant wanted to participate. The judge calculated that the incarceration term would need to be nine months to participate in the Howard Street program. The judge then sentenced the defendant to two years of incarceration, which exceeded the eighteen month recommendation of the probation officer and the nine month request of the defendant. The judge stated that he was not punishing the defendant, but rather that he was making sure that she got the help that she needed. The defendant subsequently filed an appeal, arguing that the judge unfairly considered the length of a jail rehabilitation program in determining the length of the sentence.

In its decision, the SJC held that the judge did not abuse his direction because of the unusual circumstances of the case – namely that the defendant had actually asked for a committed sentence so she could complete the substance use disorder treatment program there. The Court specifically stated that “[W]e emphasize that, while we discern no abuse of discretion in this case, it is because of the unusual context in which the challenged sentence was made…. Had the constellation of circumstances been otherwise, so might the result.”  “By way of example, even if an imposed sentence is within the statutory limits and thus legal, we would not be sanguine about sentencing practices for the same underlying crime if, following the substance-abuse-related revocation of probation, the imposed sentence were harsher than it would have been following the revocation of probation due to other causes. Moreover, when determining the length of a committed sentence, a judge’s consideration of the time requirements of a rehabilitation program that the defendant has not voluntarily requested, but that the judge mandates, is a practice fraught with peril and generally best avoided.”

Although the SJC ruled against the defendant in this particular case, the decision includes important language that should be used in defense of clients similarly situated to the defendant. If you or a loved one is facing a sentencing hearing or probation violation hearing and the crime and/or violation is related to a substance use disorder, you will need an attorney who is well versed in the most recent case law and who will put that case law to good use for your case.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is such an attorney and always gets the best results possible for his clients.  Call him for a free consultation.