Massachusetts Appeals Court Clarifies Definition of “Stay Away” for Purposes of Restraining Orders

In a trio of cases decided yesterday, the Massachusetts Appeals Court clarified the Commonwealth’s burden in cases where defendants are alleged to have violated the “stay away” provision of restraining orders.  The names of the cases are Commonwealth v. Watson, Commonwealth v. Telcinord, and Commonwealth v. Goldman.  

In Telcinord, the defendant was a woman who had been served with a restraining order by her estranged husband.  The restraining order required the defendant to stay at least 50 yards away from the defendant and to not contact him.  The order also required the defendant to “stay away” from the victim’s house located on Hall Street in Randolph.  Just hours after the defendant was served with the restraining order, a police officer saw her driving on Hall Street immediately adjacent to the defendant’s house.  The defendant admitted she was following the victim in her car, but said she believed she was in compliance with the restraining order in light of the distance between her car and the victim’s house.  A Quincy District Court jury found her guilty of violating the stay-away provision of the restraining order and she appealed.

In Watson, the defendant had been ordered to stay away from the victim’s multi-unit apartment building in Boston.  A police officer witnessed the defendant standing on a sidewalk outside the property chatting with a group of friends.  The defendant was on the other side of a fence that separated the building from the sidewalk and the cop testified the defendant was 25-30 feet away from the building’s front door.  A Boston Municipal Court judge found the defendant guilty of violating the stay-away provision of the restraining order and he appealed.

Finally, in Goldman, the victims obtained a harassment prevention order (which is similar to a restraining order) against the defendant that ordered him to stay away from their home.  One morning, the victims looked out their window and saw the defendant standing outside their house.  The police were called and the defendant was arrested.  He was convicted by a Lowell District Court jury of violating the harassment prevention order and he appealed.

In all three cases, the Appeals Court was asked to consider what conduct was prohibited by the stay-away provisions of the orders.  There was no clear answer, as the orders did not specify any distance (most restraining orders do specify a distance (usually 100 yards) that a defendant must stay away from a plaintiff).  The Court concluded that it was insufficient for a defendant to be in the mere “vicinity” of the location, because “vicinity” did not have a precise enough definition.  Instead, in order to violate a stay-away order, the Commonwealth must prove the defendant either: entered the property where the building was located; or took actions that directly intruded on the workplace or residence.

The Court upheld the convictions in Telcinord (holding that the defendant clearly intended to confront the victim by driving on his street and parking near his house) and Watson (ruling the defendant had positioned himself close enough to the front door of the building that he would have been able to contact or abuse the victim if she exited).  In Goldman, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction because the trial judge failed to instruct the jury that being in the “vicinity” of the victims’ house was insufficient to find him guilty.