Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Limits Reach of Draconian Habitual Criminal Statute

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week limited the criminal exposure of defendants who are charged with violating the state’s habitual criminal statute.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Garvey.

The defendant was indicted on various charges accusing him of violating the Massachusetts drug laws.  After returning eight drug-related indictments against the defendant, the grand jury heard evidence that the defendant had previously been convicted of four offenses (all contained in a single indictment) and sentenced to at least three years in state prison on each offense – receiving stolen property; kidnapping; unlawful possession of a gun; and possession of a gun with an obliterated serial number.  Each of these four crimes were committed during a single botched robbery.  After hearing evidence related to the defendant’s prior criminal record, the grand jury indicted him for being a habitual criminal.

The Massachusetts habitual criminal statute eliminates a sentencing judge’s discretion and forces the judge to sentence the defendant to the maximum penalty in limited circumstances.  In order for a defendant to be sentenced to the maximum penalty as a habitual criminal, he must: (1) be presently convicted of a felony; and (2) previously have been twice convicted of crimes and sentenced to at least three years in state (or federal) prison.  The defendant here filed a motion to dismiss the habitual criminal indictments, arguing there was insufficient evidence for the grand jury to have concluded he was twice convicted of crimes and sentenced to at least three years in prison.  In essence, the defendant argued his four convictions for which he received the requisite prison sentences were all part of the same criminal enterprise and could not be counted twice.  A superior court judge agreed with the defendant and dismissed the habitual criminal indictments.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

The Commonwealth argued on appeal the statute required only that the defendant have two prior convictions for which he received at least three-year state prison sentences.  There is nothing in the statute, contended the Commonwealth, requiring that the crimes arise from different criminal enterprises.  The defendant argued the Legislature’s use of the word “habitual,” which is defined as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition,” compels proof that the defendant has committed crimes on separate occasions.  The Court considered earlier Massachusetts statutes with similar language and found a common concept was that the Legislature had previously focused on separate prior incidents.  The SJC and the Appeals Court both have ruled in prior cases that qualifying convictions must result from distinct offenses.  The Court pointed out that under the Commonwealth’s reading of the statute, a defendant who is alleged to have committed three felonies at the same time could be charged as a habitual offender if the Commonwealth simply broke up the prosecution – charging two felonies up front and a third (with an accompanying habitual criminal indictment) later.  In this case, because the grand jurors heard no evidence that the defendant’s prior convictions arose from separate and distinct criminal schemes, it was proper for the superior court judge to dismiss the habitual offender indictments.

Any statute that limits a sentencing judge’s discretion is a bad statute.  This was a smart, commonsense ruling by the SJC.