Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Prohibits “Commonwealth-Capped” Pleas

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a district court judge violated the Rules of Criminal Procedure by imposing a “Commonwealth-capped” plea on a defendant.  The name of the case is Charbonneau v. Presiding Justice of the Holyoke Division of the District Court Department.

The defendant was charged in Holyoke District Court with one count of larceny over $250 and one count of larceny under $250.  He was subject to a new rule invented by a Holyoke District Court judge that if he wanted to enter into a defendant-capped plea, he would be required to do so no later than the day before the trial date.  When a defendant pleads guilty or makes an admission in district court, he provides a sentencing recommendation to the judge.  The prosecutor also makes a sentencing recommendation, which is often harsher than the defendant’s recommendation.  A defendant-capped plea means the judge cannot impose a sentence more severe than the defendant’s recommendation without allowing the defendant to withdraw his plea and go to trial.  The rule intends to encourage defendants to resolve their cases by way of plea with the knowledge that their potential liability will be capped at their recommendation.  The district court judge in this case decided that on the trial date, she would only entertain a Commonwealth-capped plea, which meant that if the judge imposed the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation, the defendant would be forced  to accept it, even if it was harsher than his recommendation.  The defendant here rightfully objected to the judge’s policy and asked the Supreme Judicial Court to invalidate it.

A handful of judges in Massachusetts have sought to prohibit defendant-capped pleas on trial dates, arguing they provide incentive for defendants to schedule every case for trial only to plead out immediately before the trial is to begin.  These judges complain that jury sessions get unnecessarily crowded by cases that are ultimately going to be guilty pleas.  Therefore, according to these judges, it is appropriate to force defendants who plan to plead out their cases to do so prior to trial.  What these judges fail to acknowledge is that defendants almost always have a valid reason to schedule their cases for trial – they need to see if the Commonwealth’s witnesses are going to show up.  Usually if the Commonwealth’s witnesses do not appear, the case is dismissed.  Therefore, forcing a defendant to plead out his case prior to the trial date deprives him of the opportunity to see if the Commonwealth will have witnesses to testify against him.

The Supreme Judicial Court wasted no time in striking down the Holyoke judge’s unlawful order.  The Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure unambiguously allow a defendant to offer a defendant-capped plea in district court.  Further, the Legislature intentionally provided criminal defendants with protections when offering pleas (in the form of the capping of liability).  The Court concluded that the Holyoke judge’s refusal to permit defendant-capped pleas on the date of a trial constituted an unacceptable “substantive limit on defendants’ sentencing protections.”

This was an easy decision for the SJC.  Judicial orders restricting defendant-capped pleas clearly violate the Rules of Criminal Procedure.