Massachusetts Appeals Court Reverses Finding that Intellectually-Disabled Man Violated His Probation

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed the finding of a Worcester County Superior Court judge that an intellectually-disabled defendant had knowingly and voluntarily admitted to violating his probation, and overturned the 5-to-8 year prison sentence awarded against him.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Abdullah Muhammad Sayyid

The defendant pled guilty to child rape and indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14.  Following a commitment to a mental institution to ensure he was competent, he was sentenced to serve between 7 and 8 years in state prison, followed by three years of probation.  The conditions of the defendant’s probation were extensive, and they were promptly violated by the defendant upon his release from prison.

The defendant’s mental health continued to be an issue and he was examined by a doctor to determine if he continued to be competent.  The doctor concluded that the defendant was mildly mentally retarded and possessed a mental defect.  The doctor expressed concern that the defendant would be able to understand legal issues and said the defendant would need additional time to appreciate his legal options and process new information.

At a probation surrender hearing, the judge asked the defendant’s attorney whether the defendant was admitting that he violated his probation.  The defense attorney admitted, on behalf of the defendant, that there had been a probation violation.  The judge then sentenced the defendant to serve an additional prison sentence of between 5 and 8 years.  The judge never questioned the defendant personally and never asked the defendant if he understood that he was stipulating, or admitting, that he violated his probation.

The defendant appealed the judge’s finding that he had violated his probation, arguing that because he had not personally stipulated to a violation, the judge was not warranted in making such a finding.  The Appeals Court agreed, reversed the superior court judge’s finding of a violation, and vacated the defendant’s prison sentence.

The Appeals Court ruled that whenever a defendant is waiving a right (in this case, the right to have a full probation hearing instead of stipulating to a violation), his or her decision must be knowingly and voluntarily made.  An appellate court will consider, under the totality of the circumstances, whether the defendant’s waiver was knowing and voluntary.  In this case, the Appeals Court wrote, “despite the evidentiary hearing focusing on the defendant’s waiver – the record remains deficient on the critical question: whether the waiver by the intellectually disabled individual here was knowing and voluntary at the time of the stipulation… we conclude that there is inadequate support [to make such a determination].”

This case illustrates the difficulty in litigating cases where the defendant has such severe mental health issues that he might not be competent to address the allegations being made against him.  This case is also a reminder of the dangers inherent in probation surrender hearings.  When a defendant is on probation and is accused of violating the terms of the probation, he or she is entitled to a full evidentiary hearing where the probation officer must prove the violation.  However, unlike in a criminal trial where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, a probation officer only needs to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that the defendant violated probation.  Once a probation violation has been established, the judge has discretion to sentence the defendant up to the maximum penalty for the underlying crime.  Probation surrender hearings can have catastrophic consequences for a defendant, and it’s essential that he or she is represented by an experienced criminal defense attorney.