Earlier this week, the Massachusetts Appeals Court declined to dismiss an unquestionably invalid criminal complaint by suggesting it was not in the interest of “judicial economy” to do so. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hardin.
The defendant was charged with breaking and entering into a car and stealing a stun gun. When confronted by the police, the defendant admitted to the crime and said he had fallen on tough times. He was bloody and covered in glass shards, and he had the stolen stun gun on his person. An eyewitness had seen him break into the car. In all, it was a strong case for the Commonwealth and the defendant decided to plead guilty. However, during the plea colloquy, the judge decided to dismiss the B&E because he concluded there was not probable cause to support the charge. The Commonwealth appealed the dismissal to the Appeals Court.
The parties agreed it had been improper for the district court judge to dismiss the charge for lack of probable cause. However, the defendant argued the charge should have been dismissed because it was facially defective. The charge of breaking and entering requires the Commonwealth to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant broke into and entered a vehicle (or a building, ship, or vessel) that belonged to someone other than the defendant. It’s an obvious point – a defendant cannot be convicted of breaking into his own property. In this case, the complaint against the defendant charged that he broke into a vehicle that belonged to a person who was “known to Commonwealth.” Therefore, the complaint failed to establish the vehicle was owned by someone other than the defendant.
The Appeals Court acknowledged it could justifiably affirm dismissal of the complaint for lacking subject matter jurisdiction (which essentially means the complaint as written failed to allege a crime that could be litigated in court). However, the justices in the majority said it was not in the interest of justice or judicial economy to uphold the dismissal and force the Commonwealth to apply for a new complaint. Instead, the majority remanded the case back to district court to allow the prosecutor to file a motion to amend the complaint. The Appeals Court pointed out that it would be very easy for the prosecutor to fix the language to create a valid complaint. While this point is unquestionably true, the fact is the prosecutor failed to take this very simple step while the case was still pending in district court and before the defendant tried to plead guilty. By using the judicial economy argument, the Appeals Court essentially conceded the defendant is correct, but said it would be inconvenient to the prosecutor and the judicial system if the dismissal was upheld. Therefore, the case will now be sent back to district court and the prosecutor will have a second chance to correct the mistake contained in the complaint.
One justice dissented. He recognized the obvious – that a complaint alleging a defendant broke and entered into property owned by some mysterious person does not allege a crime. The complaint must accuse the defendant of breaking into property belonging to some other person. The dissent contended that the B&E charge should have been dismissed because the complaint plainly failed to state a crime, and therefore no court had jurisdiction to entertain the allegation.
This case perfectly illustrates the reluctance of some judges to insist that prosecutors do their jobs. The Appeals Court here points out that the mistake contained in the complaint (and the mistake of the prosecutor in not fixing it) did not prejudice the defendant because he was not confused about the allegations against him. It’s the “no harm, no foul” ruling and it’s shameful. Judges have an obligation to enforce the law and the rules of criminal procedure and when the Commonwealth breaks the rules, judges should impose appropriate consequences on prosecutors. However, some judges bend over backwards to cover for prosecutors who don’t do their jobs. Whether it’s a failure to fix an invalid complaint, a failure to produce discovery in a timely manner, or a failure to do any other act mandated by the rules of criminal procedure, some judges consistently give prosecutors a pass. It’s unacceptable and it sends a message to criminal defendants that prosecutors are above the law. This is an awful opinion.