Gov. Baker Files Legislation to Allow Judges To Hold Dangerous Defendants Pending Trial

Reacting to several recent tragedies where criminal defendants killed police officers and innocent civilians while they were free on bail before trial, Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation last Thursday that would make it easier for judges to keep in jail dangerous defendants that are charged with felony offenses.

Baker’s bill largely focuses on the state’s “Dangerousness Statute”, M.G.L. Ch. 276 Sec. 58A, which allows District Attorneys to request a “Dangerousness Hearing” where prosecutors ask a judge to hold a defendant in custody while that defendant awaits trial, instead of releasing the defendant.

Under the governor’s proposal, the list of crimes that trigger the prosecution’s right to a dangerousness hearing would be expanded to include assault and battery against a police officer, several additional sex crimes, as well as human trafficking.  Another important change the bill proposes, is that judges would not be prohibited, as they are now, from taking into account a defendant’s criminal history when making his or her ruling on the issue of a defendant’s dangerousness.  That’s a major change.  In addition, prosecutors would be allowed to seek a dangerousness hearing at any stage during a criminal case. Presently, if the prosecution wants to requests a dangerousness hearing, it can only do so only at the defendant’s arraignment, not later – so it has only one chance to ask a judge to hold a defendant in jail before trial. The governor’s bill would expand that ability.

Gov. Baker unveiled his proposal last Thursday at State House news conference that was attended police officers supporting the measure, in particular Yarmouth Police Chief Frank Frederickson, who cited the killings of Yarmouth police Sergeant Sean Gannon, Auburn police Officer Ronald Tarentino Jr., and Weymouth police Sergeant Michael Chesna,who were killed in 2016.  “This has to take to place because it is all about fairness,” Frederickson said. “Let me ask you, with this current system that we’re working under, was that fair to the Tarentino family? Was it fair to the Gannon family? Was it fair to the Chesna family?” Gannon was shot and killed in April while attempting to serve a warrant on Thomas Latanowich, who was free while accused of violating his probation. Chesna was shot and killed in July by Emanuel Lopes, who was free on $500 bail in a drug case. Tarentino was shot and killed after pulling over Jorge Zambrano in May 2016. To these questions, I would add:  Was it fair that a young military veteran, Kevin P. Quinn, who had served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, be killed by a murder suspect freed by a judge while awaiting trial? Even worse, when the victim had just left the hospital visiting his wife, who had just delivered their newborn child?

These questions deserve to be answered. As a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, many people would think that I would be opposed to this bill.  I’m not.  In fact, the bill may not go far enough in protecting the public, in terms of the important issue of bail, which I’ve written about previously on this blog. My position might seem, coming from a criminal defense attorney, to be ideologically incongruent. Let me say that it is anything but that: “Justice” does not – and should not – advocate that dangerous criminal defendants be freed without bail, or freed if they present a danger to the public. That is not “justice” – justice is assuring that every criminal defendant be afforded a fair trial, with a competent attorney that will defend that defendant to the best of his or her ability, and zealously. Justice is adherence to the Miranda Rule. Justice is adherence to the rules of evidence, and unbiased judges and juries. Justice is the appointment of a public defender if a defendant cannot afford an attorney. “Justice” does not mean, or require, that dangerous criminals accused of felony offenses, be let out on the streets because they “can’t afford” bail – when the facts of a case clearly warrant high bail amounts to be set. I’m referring here to violent crimes such as Massachusetts aggravated rape charges, Massachusetts or Massachusetts felony-murder charges. And “justice” mean that prosecutors hands’ should be tied in this instances – prevented from detaining clearly dangerous individuals.

Anyone has the right to disagree with this.  But if you do, ask yourself:  Is it your safety or life, or the safety or lives of those you care about, that you’re willing to risk in the future, if dangerous criminal defendants are allowed to go free for perhaps a year or more pending trial? Liberal court rulings, and liberal legislative acts, are threatening public safety at an increasing rate – and this must stop. Among many legal public policy issues that are important, public safety should be paramount. Again, if you disagree, that’s fine – but be sure to place your life or your loved ones’ lives on the line, while you do so.

Neither the leadership of the House or Senate on Beacon Hill have issued any comment yet, regarding their positions on this bill.  Not unexpected, given the liberal nature of the state legislature.