The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that the common law crime of “interference with the lawful duties of a police officer” is still a crime in the Commonwealth. However, because the prosecution failed to prove the elements in the case at issue, the defendant’s conviction for that crime was reversed. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Adams.
In December of 2016, the Tyngsboro Police Department decided to suspend the defendant’s license to carry a gun. On the evening of December 28th, three Tyngsboro cops went to the defendant’s house to notify him of the suspension and collect his guns and ammunition. According to the police, the defendant answered the door, stepped outside, and became upset upon learning of the cops’ intent to take his firearms. He repeatedly shouted that he would not comply and wanted to call his attorney. He further instructed his wife not to allow the officers to go inside the home. The defendant tried to go back inside, but one of the officers physically stopped him and again ordered him to give up his guns. The defendant continued to insist he would not allow the officers to take his firearms and as he attempted again to go inside his home, the officers tackled him. After a physical struggle, the defendant was placed under arrest. He was ultimately charged with several crimes, including interference with a police officer. A Lowell District Court jury convicted the defendant of the interference charge and he appealed.
The first issue on appeal was whether interference with a police officer is a crime under Massachusetts law at all. The crime is not included in any statute, but when the Massachusetts Constitution was adopted in 1780, it allowed for crimes at common law to continue to be prosecuted unless the Legislature declared the previously-criminal conduct to be lawful. The Court then traced the history of the interference with a police officer law to its roots in England in 1634, through the 19th century in Massachusetts, and to the present day. The crime has been enforced for centuries, and there have been thousands of prosecutions within the past several decades. Accordingly, the Court concluded the crime existed at common law and it still enforceable today. The Court then went on to define the elements of the crime. First, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted willfully (he intended his conduct). But what constitutes “interference?” It cannot consist of constitutionally-protected speech, which includes verbal criticism directed at police officers. However, physical obstruction and threats directed toward cops are not constitutionally-protected behaviors. Therefore, the SJC concluded that in cases charging interference with a police officer, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) the officer was engaged in the lawful performance of a duty; (2) the defendant performed a physical act that hindered or obstructed the officer’s lawful performance; (3) the defendant was aware the officer was engaged in the performance of his duty; and (4) the defendant intended to hinder or obstruct the officer. In this case, the Court concluded the Commonwealth had not proven the defendant committed a physical act of obstruction, and the Commonwealth had not proven the defendant threatened violence against the cops.
Given the Court’s ruling, a judgment of acquittal will be entered in favor of the defendant.