What Does the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Consider a “Substantive Dating Relationship?”

In upholding the defendant’s conviction for committing an assault and battery against his former girlfriend, the Supreme Judicial Court provided guidance as to what constitutes a “substantive dating relationship” in the context of the new domestic violence law.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dustin.

On August 28, 2014, the defendant and his girlfriend were involved in an altercation in the defendant’s car.  An independent witness confronted them and the defendant quickly drove away from the scene.  When a police officer stopped the defendant’s car a short distance away, the defendant said he was pissed off because he had just been involved in a fight with his girlfriend.  The girlfriend testified at the trial that she and the defendant had known each other for several months before the fight and over time had started to date one another.  They did not live with each other, but they were exclusive.  The girlfriend testified she and the defendant got along beautifully and were great friends.  The defendant also testified and agreed with the girlfriend’s characterization of their relationship.  He said the relationship was “great,” “awesome,” and “probably the best.”  Their relationship continued for a period of time after the fight.  There was also evidence presented at the trial that the defendant had nursed the girlfriend back to health as she recovered from a medical issue and he was permitted to drive her car.  On the date in question, the girlfriend insisted to the police there was no problem between her and the defendant and she begged the cops not to arrest the defendant.  The defendant was ultimately charged with assault and battery on a household member and convicted by a Marlborough District Court jury.

The defendant’s primary appellate argument was that the Commonwealth had not proven  beyond a reasonable doubt that his girlfriend qualified as a “family or household member.”  The statute defines family or household member as: (1) a spouse or ex-spouse; (2) someone who is a co-parent of a child; or (3) someone who had been involved with the defendant in a substantive dating or engagement relationship.  The only possible application to the facts of this case was the third category – were the defendant and his girlfriend involved in a substantive dating relationship?  The Supreme Judicial Court said trial courts ought to consider the following factors in attempting to set the parameters of a substantive dating relationship: (1) how long did the relationship last? (2) how frequently did the parties interact with each other? (3) which party terminated the relationship? and (4) how much time has elapsed since the termination of the relationship?  Applying these factors to the present case, the SJC concluded the Commonwealth had proven the existence of a substantive dating relationship.  The parties had dated for several months, which culminated in an exclusive “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship.  Their relationship was self-described as “good” and “great.”  They participated in the daily activities of one another and the defendant helped the girlfriend with her medical condition.  All of these facts supported a finding that the defendant and his girlfriend had been involved in a substantive dating relationship.

It’s an important distinction because a conviction for committing an assault and battery on a substantive significant other carries potentially harsher penalties (for a subsequent conviction) and additional draconian conditions.