Massachusetts Defendant Ordered to Pay Restitution for Damage Caused by Police Department’s Negligence

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ordered a criminal defendant to pay restitution to his victim for storage fees that were accumulated when the police department failed to tell the victim where his car had been stored.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Buckley

In July of 2014, the defendant stole the victim’s car from a grocery store parking lot.  After he was connected to the crime by surveillance video, the defendant immediately told the cops where they could find the victim’s car, and the police found the car within a day or two if its having been taken.  However, the cops dropped the ball and failed to tell the victim that the vehicle had been recovered.  As a result, the victim bought a new car and his old (recovered) car sat in an auto-body shop’s storage facility and accumulated a little more than $3,000 in towing and storage fees.  By the time the victim finally discovered where his car was being stored, he was unable to pay the storage fees and ultimately gave the car to the body-shop.

After the defendant pled guilty, he was placed on probation for six months and the judge scheduled a restitution hearing.  The parties had previously agreed the book value of the stolen car was around $3,000.  The defendant objected to paying for the loss of the stolen car, arguing it was the negligence of the police department by not promptly notifying the victim of the whereabouts of his car that was the proximate cause of the victim’s loss of the vehicle.  The judge disagreed, pointing out that if the defendant had not stolen the car to begin with, the victim would not have suffered any loss whatsoever.  The judge ordered the defendant to pay $3,000 in restitution and the defendant appealed the restitution order.

The Appeals Court upheld the district court judge’s order of restitution.  In Massachusetts, restitution can be ordered when the victim’s loss or damage is causally connected to the crime and is significantly related to the criminal conduct.  In this case, the Appeals Court ruled the defendant’s crime resulted in the victim’s deprivation of his car and it was foreseeable that the victim might not have ever recovered the vehicle.  Therefore, it was appropriate for the defendant to be on the hook for the entire $3,000 value of the car.

The defendant correctly pointed out that the victim’s economic loss would have been greatly reduced if the police department had done its job and immediately told the victim where he could find his car.  The defendant also faulted the auto-body shop for not notifying the victim.  The Appeals Court rejected the defendant’s argument and concluded that any intervening third party acts of negligence did not break the chain of causation between the defendant’s original crime and the economic loss sustained by the victim.  The Court also said it is appropriate for someone who commits an intentional crime (such as the defendant, who stole the victim’s car) is more liable for subsequent damages than someone who is simply negligent.

Restitution hearings should be taken seriously because a restitution order becomes a condition of probation.  A probationer who willfully does not pay restitution can have his probation revoked and can be sentenced to jail.