Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules a Trial Judge Can Revoke a Defendant’s Personal Recognizance Even When the Defendant has Already Defaulted

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled that a trial court judge has the authority to revoke a defendant’s personal recognizance and lock him up even if the defendant had already defaulted and was no longer “on release” as required by the statute.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Morales.

In August of 2014, the defendant was charged with larceny over $250.  He was arraigned in the Boston Municipal Court.   At every arraignment a judge is supposed to tell the defendant that if he is arrested or charged with a new crime while “on release” in the original case, his personal recognizance could be revoked and he could be held without bail until the resolution of his first case.  The judge properly gave the defendant his bail revocation warnings in this case before releasing him.  However, the defendant did not show up to court for his pretrial conference (which was a few months after the arraignment) and the judge issued a default warrant against him.  Before he could be picked up on the default warrant, the defendant allegedly assaulted a member of his family and was arrested.  At his arraignment on the assault charge, the prosecutor asked the judge to revoke his personal recognizance (and hold the defendant without bail) on the larceny case.

The issue was whether the defendant was still “on release” for the original crime when he had defaulted and a warrant had issued for his arrest.  The trial judge concluded that after the defendant had defaulted on his larceny case, he was no longer “on release” for that crime and therefore, any crime committed after his default, did not trigger the revocation statute.  The Commonwealth appealed the judge’s refusal to consider its motion to revoke the defendant’s release and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed to review the judge’s ruling.

The Supreme Judicial Court pointed out that every defendant who is released on bail or personal recognizance needs to appreciate that his liberty is conditional.  If the defendant’s behavior while on release is unsatisfactory, his liberty interest could be curtailed further.  In this case, in addition to staying out of trouble, the defendant was obligated to appear at his pretrial conferences.  The Court said his failure to appear at a pretrial conference did not change his “release” status and he continued to be “on release” until he was brought back in front of a judge.  The Court relied heavily on the policy position that a defendant should not be rewarded by failing to abide by one condition of release (not showing up in court) and then not being subject to being locked up for failing to abide by a second condition of release (committing a new crime).

While this isn’t the most exciting SJC opinion to read, it has enormous implications for defendants who are released on personal recognizance, particularly on relatively minor crimes in district court.  Anybody who has a pending case is on thin ice from the moment of the arraignment.  Any violation of a pretrial condition of release may cause a a prosecutor to seek immediate detention against the defendant.  In Middlesex County, which is home to the most unreasonable District Attorney’s Office in the state, prosecutors file motions to revoke bail in essentially every single case, regardless of the nature of the new allegations or the seriousness of the underlying case.  It is important for every person who has an open case to be on his or her absolute best behavior to avoid being sent to jail before the case is resolved.