Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Lowell Building Inspector’s Larceny Conviction

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed Lowell Building Inspector David St. Hilaire’s larceny conviction that followed a real estate transaction between St. Hilaire and his 86-year-old neighbor.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. St. Hilaire.

Following a jury-waived trial, a superior court judge found the defendant guilty of larceny from a person sixty years of age or older.  The evidence at trial established that the victim had lived in her Lowell home for more than 50 years.  When the defendant moved next door, he and the victim’s husband argued about the boundaries of their respective plots of land.  After the husband died, the defendant asked whether he could buy the victim’s home.  The victim told various people, including her attorney, that she did not wish to sell her land to the defendant.  She said her husband would “flip over in his grave” if she sold her property to the defendant.

During the summer of 2010, the victim broke her hip and was hospitalized pending surgery.  She asked her attorney to visit the hospital to discuss her will and said she wanted to leave all of her property to her deceased best friend’s daughter (Lisa Miele).  The attorney drafted the will and returned to the hospital the same day for the victim’s signature in the presence of two witnesses and a notary.  The victim underwent surgery the next day and was transferred to a nursing home within a week.  Upon arrival at the nursing home, the victim was examined by medical staff who concluded that the victim exhibited mild cognitive deficits and was not competent to sign paperwork.  As the victim’s health care proxy, Miele would need to sign documents on the victim’s behalf.  Within days, the victim began suffering from a painful infection that required the administration of medication including oxycodone (which can cause sedation and confusion).  After taking the medication, the victim was sometimes incoherent and incapable of communicating.  During this time, the victim was visited regularly by Miele and she was also visited by the defendant.  One day, Miele visited the victim at the nursing home and reported that the victim was barely aware of Miele’s presence.  Miele departed and the defendant arrived shortly thereafter.  The defendant brought with him a notary public and one other person.  The defendant handed a document to the victim and asked her to sign it (without explaining its contents).  The victim’s roommate told her not to sign the paper, but she did.  The victim later told Miele that she didn’t know what she had signed and the defendant had not left a copy with her.

When the victim died a few weeks later, the defendant produced a quitclaim deed in which the victim conveyed her property to the defendant.  When questioned by the police, the defendant said that he and the victim had entered into an oral agreement prior to her hospitalization for the victim to sell her land to the defendant for $100,000.  The defendant would pay off any municipal liens and grant the victim a life estate in the property.  The defendant drafted all documents himself and did not tell either Miele or the victim’s attorney about the alleged property sale agreement.  He told the police that when she signed the quitclaim deed, the victim looked good and knew what was going on.

The defendant was indicted and charged with larceny in superior court.  Following a jury-waived trial, the judge convicted the defendant finding, among other things, that he (1) took the victim’s property without her consent; and (2) knew or should of known that the victim lacked the mental capacity to consent to the transaction.  The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it was appropriate for the trial judge to consider whether the victim had the mental capacity to consent to the real estate deal.  If she was incompetent, she lacked the capacity to sell the land.  However, the SJC ruled that it was error for the trial judge to convict the defendant because he knew or should have known that the victim was incompetent.  Larceny is a specific intent crime, which means the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to steal the property.  If the defendant honestly believed the victim was capable of consenting to the transaction, even if his honest belief was mistaken, then he didn’t intend to steal and he shouldn’t have been convicted of larceny.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and sent the case back to the superior court for a new trial.