The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed that a witness to a criminal offense can be charged with a crime if he lies about what he saw. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Paquette.
The Massachusetts witness intimidation statute prohibits any person from willfully misleading a police officer. On May 3, 2014, the 21-year-old defendant and his sister hosted a party at their father’s home in Westhampton. Two of the partygoers became involved in an argument that led to a physical altercation in the kitchen. One of the men smashed a beer bottle against the other man’s skull, causing significant head and neck injuries. A brawl erupted and shortly thereafter the defendant told everyone to leave his father’s house. He told the victim, who was on his way to the hospital, not to tell anyone where he had been injured.
The following day, state police troopers interviewed the defendant. The defendant acknowledged he had hosted the party but was vague about its details. He said he was outside and picking up beer cans during the fight and did not return inside until after the fight was over. He claimed to not know several of the participants and witnesses to the fight. The troopers thought the defendant was lying and told him so. They threatened the defendant with criminal charges if he continued to lie. The troopers’ follow up investigation reinforced their belief that the defendant had not told the truth, as five witnesses said the defendant was in the kitchen when the fight started and had attempted to prevent the fight from happening by talking to the men who were involved. The troopers interviewed the defendant a second time several weeks after the fight and the defendant claimed to have been “blackout drunk” at the party. He continued to insist he was outside during the fight.
The defendant was indicted under the witness intimidation statute and convicted by a jury. The judge imposed a suspended jail sentence and the defendant appealed.
The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to the superior court for a new trial, concluding that the trial judge had not properly instructed the jury on the applicable legal principles. The Court took the opportunity to review the types of statements that will cause defendants to incur criminal liability under the witness intimidation statute. The Court said the statute requires the defendant to make a false statement and that the false statement could have reasonably misled the police officers in their investigation (by causing them to pursue a course of investigation materially different than the course they would have pursued otherwise). It is not necessary that the statement actually misled the police, as long as it reasonably could have done so. If a defendant makes a false statement to the police that would not have reasonably caused the police to change course in their investigation, however, the defendant is not guilty of violating the witness intimidation statute. Generally, a simple denial from a defendant that he committed a crime is insufficient to satisfy the elements of the witness intimidation statute. In this case, the SJC ruled there was sufficient evidence for the defendant to have been convicted because the trial evidence established he intended to mislead the police investigation both by his statements and his instruction to the victim to not tell anyone where he had been injured. Accordingly, the defendant’s case will be returned to superior court for another trial.
Of course, the defendant could have very easily avoided being charged altogether if he had followed one simple rule: don’t talk to the police. As the SJC pointed out, witnesses do not have any obligation to disclose information to the police. If the defendant had simply refused to talk to the cops, he never would have made a false statement and he never would have been indicted for witness intimidation. Whether you are the target of a police investigation or a witness, you should never talk to the cops without first consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney.