Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules Defendant Who Failed to Report to Jail can be Prosecuted for Escape

In an interesting opinion delivered today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that a convicted criminal who failed to report to jail on time to serve his sentence could be convicted of escape for his failure to appear.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Porter

The defendant was convicted of a crime (which is not specified in the Appeals Court’s decision) and sentenced to serve six months in the House of Correction.  The sentencing judge ordered that the defendant be permitted to serve his sentence on the weekends.  There is a law in Massachusetts (which is very rarely used) that states a judge may sentence a defendant to serve weekend sentences when the sentence is less than one year and it is the first jail sentence for the defendant.  Weekend sentences are most often ordered for defendants convicted of OUI-third offense, which carries a mandatory minimum six months in jail.  If the defendant has a job, judges sometimes rationalize that it makes sense to allow the defendant to continue to work while serving his or her punishment.

A defendant who is serving a weekend sentence is ordered to report to the jail no later than 6:00 p.m. on Friday and is released no later than 7:00 a.m. on the following Monday.  The defendant goes to jail every weekend until the sentence has been served in full.

In this case, the defendant called the jail on Friday to say he would not be able to report on time.  He told jail officials that he would be 45 minutes late.  However, he didn’t show up until Saturday at 7:15 p.m.  He was taken into custody and charged with escape.  The defendant later pleaded guilty to escape and was sentenced to an additional 10 days in the House of Correction, to be served after he completed his original sentence.  After his plea, the defendant changed his mind and filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that his failure to report to the jail on time did not satisfy the elements of the escape statute.

The defendant contended that because he was not “in custody” of a jail official or the physical building of the House of Correction when he failed to report, he could not have escaped.  The Appeals Court disagreed.  The Court said that the defendant was serving a “special sentence of imprisonment” that designated him in “constructive” custody during the time periods that he was required to be in jail.  Therefore, from Friday evenings until Monday mornings during the duration of his sentence, he was considered an inmate at the House of Correction.  The statute states that failure to return from a temporary release constitutes an escape.  The Appeals Court held that the defendant was temporarily released each Monday and as soon as he failed to return on Friday, he had violated the escape statute.

Weekend sentences are rare because jail officials despise them and ask prosecutors to vehemently object to them.  Every time a person reports to the House of Correction, there is a lengthy intake process.  That process has to be repeated every time a defendant serving a weekend sentence returns on Friday night.  Additionally, there are frequently problems with defendants showing up drunk or high on Friday nights and they are pressured by other inmates to smuggle contraband into the jails.  For these reasons, judges are reluctant to order weekend sentences except in the most compelling circumstances.