The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled the crime of indecent assault and battery on a person with an intellectual disability is not unconstitutionally vague. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. St. Louis.
The victim is a woman in her 20s who lives with significant developmental delays. She was diagnosed as a baby as having “special needs.” She reads at an elementary school level and has an IQ of 47. Her mother and grandfather were appointed to serve as her legal guardians when she turned 18, as she is unable to make decisions without adult supervision.
The defendant is in his 70s. He worked for 46 years as a boat builder and enjoys hunting in Western Massachusetts. Many years ago, the defendant began hunting on the victim’s family’s land and became friends with the victim’s grandfather. The defendant typically visited the victim’s family a few times a year, staying for one or two weeks at a time. During these visits, the defendant slept in his camper which he parked on the property. The defendant described the victim as behaving “like a child more or less.”
In September of 2011, the victim’s mother saw the victim rubbing the defendant’s penis over his pants. The mother pulled the victim aside to ask what was happening between her and the defendant. The victim said the defendant had touched her in a sexual manner on a number of occasions and the defendant made her feel uncomfortable. The victim’s mother reported the allegations to the police who ultimately charged the defendant with several counts of indecent assault and battery on a person with an intellectual disability. Following his convictions on some of the charges, the defendant appealed.
The defendant’s primary argument to the Supreme Judicial Court was the statute was unconstitutionally vague because it did not define “intellectual disability.” A criminal law must be sufficiently defined to put potential criminals on notice about exactly what type of conduct is illegal. When a term is not defined, courts consider its usual and accepted meaning. The SJC concluded “intellectual disability” is a term that a person of average intelligence would understand and therefore is not unconstitutionally vague. The Court reviewed the legislative history of the law, which was amended in 2010. The statute previously prohibited an indecent assault and battery on a “mentally retarded person.” In 2010, the language was changed to prohibit an indecent assault and battery on a “person with an intellectual disability.” Otherwise, the law was not changed in any way. The Court pointed out the Massachusetts Legislature was part of a trend nationwide to eliminate the word “retard” from its laws in order to respect people who live with intellectual disabilities. The Court said the Legislature intended only to replace outdated language with a more acceptable term and did not intend to change the substance of the statute.
Because the defendant should have understood the meaning of “intellectual disability” and he admitted the victim was like a child, he was properly convicted. The trial judge sentenced the defendant to serve five years in state prison for his crimes.