For a criminal charge to issue against an individual, a police officer must submit an application to the court for a criminal complaint. The application includes the alleged facts and the charges sought. A clerk magistrate then reviews the application to determine whether there is a sufficient basis for the complaint to issue. The specific legal standard is whether the information presented to the clerk magistrate establishes probable cause to believe that the individual committed a particular crime. If the clerk magistrate finds that there is probable cause, the complaint issues and the individual charged is brought to court and is arraigned on the charges.
An arraignment essentially consists of the court notifying the person of the charges, a plea of not guilty entering, and a bail argument. Once a person has been arraigned, the charge is entered onto the person’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) or, in the case of juveniles, Court Activity Record Information (CARI). Following the arraignment, the case proceeds through the pre-trial process, and ultimately to some sort of resolution, such as a trial, a dismissal, or a plea. The pre-trial process may include a motion to dismiss on the ground that the application for the complaint lacked sufficient probable cause, and therefore the clerk magistrate should not have issued the complaint.
When a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause is brought, the judge must review the information presented to the clerk magistrate and make his or her own determination as to whether the information was sufficient to establish probable cause. Even where a person wins a motion to dismiss, however, the charge remains on the person’s CORI or CARI. Further, although public access to a person’s CORI/CARI is limited, certain institutions, such as courts, public housing authorities, and certain employers, do have access to CORI/CARI information. Therefore, institutions with such access are able to see that a person has been charged with a crime, including the specific charge, even if the charges are ultimately dismissed for lack of probable cause.
Naturally, this can cause serious problems for a person with a dismissed charged – among other things, it can mean the difference between employment and unemployment, and/or housing and no housing. Fortunately for juvenile offenders, the Supreme Judicial Court recently issued a decision in Commonwealth v. Humberto H., which establishes some protection against these issues. In its decision, the Court holds that a juvenile court judge may allow a motion to dismiss prior to arraignment so that there will be no CARI entry for the case. The SJC specifically stated that when “a juvenile files a motion to dismiss a complaint before arraignment based on the absence of probable cause…a judge does not abuse his discretion in deciding to hear and rule on that motion before arraignment to protect the juvenile from the potential adverse consequences of a CARI record.” In coming to this conclusion, the court acknowledged the importance of giving Juvenile Court judges broad discretion to protect the best interests of children and cited to the fact that Massachusetts law requires that juveniles be treated “not as criminals, but as children in need of aid, encouragement and guidance.”
As an added bonus, the decision also established some helpful law in relation to possession with intent to distribute marijuana cases. The juvenile in the case was charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana based on his possession of five plastic bags of marijuana and a lack of smoking paraphernalia. In reviewing the motion to dismiss and the clerk magistrate’s finding of probable cause, the Court held that the alleged facts did not create probable cause to believe that the juvenile had an intent to distribute the marijuana, stating that “based on quantity alone, the question here [was] not close.” The Court went on to state that what used to be straight marijuana possession cases are now being charged as intent to distribute cases because straight possession is no longer a crime. The Court warned that judicial officers evaluating probable cause “must be mindful of the risk that police officers or prosecutors might allege an intent to distribute based on the mere suspicion of such an intent for the purpose of charging the offender as a criminal or a delinquent rather than as a civil violator.” In light of this language, the Court’s decision will also be helpful in challenging possession with intent to distribute marijuana charges.
Taken as a whole, the court’s decision in Humberto H. addresses two different but very important issues, establishing favorable law for both juveniles, and those charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana. If you or a loved one is facing charges relating to either issue, you will need a skilled and experienced defense attorney who is well aware of these new developments. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is well versed in the law and can help you figure out how to use this important new case to your advantage.