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Massachusetts Chemist Sentenced for Tampering With Narcotic Evidence

Massachusetts crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 charges, like tampering with evidence, perjury, obstruction of justice, and falsely claiming to hold a master’s degree. The woman deliberately affected the lives of over 40,000 defendants who were wrongly released, or convicted based on her inaccurate test results.

Case Background

Annie Dookhan’s job as a crime lab chemist entailed the testing of drug evidence submitted by law enforcement agencies at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain. Authorities began an investigation of Dookhan’s lab practices after they were “tipped off” by her colleagues as to the reliability of her results. They soon learned that Dookhan engaged in a regular practice of visually identifying drug samples instead of chemically testing the contents of the evidentiary vials.

Dookhan only tested a small fraction of the samples, and then recorded all the samples in the batch as “positive” for drugs. The woman’s practice, also known as “dry-labbing,” enabled her to cut corners by saving time and “completing” a larger amount of cases. Reportedly, Annie Dookhan tampered with evidence because she sought to advance her career with her increased productivity. Nevertheless, since her arrest in August 2012 an estimated 40,000 defendants could be affected by Dookhan’s testing.

Annie Dookhan’s False Expert Testimony

Aside from her faulty drug tests, Annie Dookhan has also tampered with her own accreditations in a court of law. Called in to testify as an expert in a criminal trial for cocaine charges, Dookhan claimed that she held a Master’s Degree in Chemistry for the University of Massachusetts. The jury considered her testimony as reliable expertise, and thus overturned the criminal defendant’s conviction in the case. As a result of Dookhan’s false claims in court, the guilty defendant was released, he continued a chain of illegal activity, and even killed a Brockton, Massachusetts resident.

Long-term Effects of Dookhan’s Fraudulent Actions

Annie Dookhan deliberately affected tens of thousands of lives by dry-labbing. For every piece of evidence she did not test, yet marked as a drug sample, a person was wrongly convicted and might still be serving time. According to Attorney General Martha Coakley, Annie Dookhan’s actions “harmed the integrity of the system and put the public’s safety at risk.” While Dookhan’s attorney urged that his client never intended to “throw the entire Massachusetts criminal justice system into a tailspin,” but this is a hard contention to consider. Dookhan wanted to advance her career, and she ignored all the innocent lives that were forced under the criminal system, as well as the millions of dollars which the state will have to spend to rectify her mistakes. The future is unclear for Massachusetts drug testing labs, wherein more and more incidents of shoddy oversight have plagued their reliability.

Mistaken Identity or Taking the Fall – The Contreras Case

Twenty-nine year old Blanca Contreras, a Guatemalan native, has been charged with vehicular homicide in the November 23, 2011 death of Scottie Coxall. Coxall, a Waltham, Massachusetts resident, was walking across the intersection of School and Church streets, when an SUV struck him and fled the scene. Coxall died at Massachusetts General Hospital a week later.

Contreras was arrested at her home the evening of the accident.  Although authorities believed that Contreras was the driver of the SUV that struck and killed Scottie Coxall, she is claiming mistaken identity.  Her boyfriend, William Vasquez, claimed that he was actually driving the SUV at the time of the collision.

Was Contreras really at fault?

Her trial has been postponed several times due to motions to dismiss and motions in limine by both parties.  In support of the mistaken identity defense, the sworn statement of a witness, William Pineda, was submitted to the Court saying that a male individual was driving the SUV at the time of the hit-and-run.  Considering the witness statement and the confession of Contrera’s boyfriend that he was the person driving, her attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case.

However, the Assistant District Attorney prosecuting this case, Ceara Mahoney, is not buying the confession.  For one reason, Vasquez did not make his “confession” until March 21, 2012, nearly four months after Contreras was arrested.  The Assistant District Attorney had this to say in her response to the defense motion:

The statement made by William Vasquez was after the defendant had been incarcerated and ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had issued a detainer of the defendants pending removal procedures.  Vasquez had ample time to make such statement during the three separate conversations he had with the police on the night of the incident.

Prosecutors previously charged Vasquez, with lying to police in making his confession, but later dropped the charges.  The trial was scheduled to begin on October 24, 2013, but was again postponed.  A new trial date has not been set.

Mistaken Identity Defense

The elements that must be proven by the state when prosecuting someone for vehicular homicide, in Massachusetts are pretty straightforward.  The Assistant District Attorney must show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant was driving recklessly or negligently, which directly caused the death of another. Implicit in this requirement of proof is establishing the identity of the defendant committing the crime.  Massachusetts’ jury instruction, explaining the identification requirement, states, in part, as follows:

One of the most important issues in this case is the identification of the defendant as the perpetrator of the crime. The Commonwealth has the burden of proving the identity of the perpetrator beyond a reasonable doubt.  It is not essential that any witnesses themselves be free from doubt as to the correctness of their identification of the defendant. However, you, the jury, must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of the accuracy of the identification of the defendant before you may convict him (her).

As identity is a necessary element of any crime, “mistaken identity” is obviously a viable defense to any crime.  Asserting this defense means the person is claiming to be innocent and a declaring that any eyewitness to the incident was mistaken in believing they saw the defendant, when instead they saw someone else.  This defense can question both the memory of the witness and the perception of the witness.

At this point, in the Blanca Contreras case, the question of whether the mistaken identity defense will be successful is still up in the air. Until it is resolved, the question remains: was Vasquez actually driving or did he try to take the blame for his girlfriend?

Quincy Infant Dies of Heroin Poisoning, Parents Charged With Manslaughter

A five-month old infant girl died after drinking baby bottle formula laced with heroin. Authorities stepped in to find three grams of heroin and hypodermic needles in her parents’ home. While the infant’s death does not seem to be intentional, her parents were charged with manslaughter.

Case Background

Ryan Barry and Ashley Cyr lived together with a four-year-old, a three-year-old, and their infant five-month old daughter. Barry stated to the authorities that he prepared the baby girl’s bottle by mixing two ounces of formula with two ounces of water. Shortly after drinking the bottle, the baby became unconscious and the couple called 911. Authorities found the infant’s grandmother performing CPR to no avail, and the infant died shortly after being brought to the hospital. Authorities attempted to discover the baby’s cause of death, and the hospital report revealed that the baby formula in the bottle contained heroin. During the investigation, Barry confessed that the infant’s mother was using drugs near the children, and had even “snorted drugs off a Dr. Seuss book.”  Surely enough, authorities found evidence of drug use in the home, including needles and three grams of heroin. Barry claimed that the heroin might have gotten into the formula if “someone cleaned a syringe in the water bottle” used to prepare the infant’s drink. According to the autopsy, the infant died of opiate poisoning.

The couple was arrested, held on $200,000 cash bail, and charged with manslaughter last week. However, the little girl passed away in 2011. Accordingly, the defense is raising an interesting point: why are the authorities charging the couple now? Essentially, the defense attorney is seeking to clarify the reason why the investigation took two years despite the fact that the autopsy identification of the cause of death was timely. While this may be a petty point for the defense to try to beef up their own case, it bears mentioning because, even as a policy point, the prosecution might be charging the wrong party. Attorney Liam Scully claims that there is no evidence that his client (Ryan Barry) put the heroine into the baby’s bottle, and thus Barry should not be vilified and charged with manslaughter.

Legal Ramifications

Since the couple was charged under Massachusetts State Laws, they are liable to up to twenty years in prison for manslaughter. Ashley Cyr, the infant’s mother, was also charged with a count of reckless endangerment of a child on the basis of the drug findings and Barry’s statements to the police. While not a part of the General Laws, reckless endangerment to children is defined as a person who is aware of, yet “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk” which would result in serious bodily injury to a child. Disregard of the risk must constitute a “gross deviation from the behavior of a reasonable person in the same situation”. Here, the father testified that the mother used heroine near the children, even on their story books, so she put her infant and two toddlers  in danger of ingesting heroine. Coupled with the infant’s death from opiate poisoning, the mother’s reckless endangerment will make a difficult burden for the defense to overcome.  More likely than not, the couple will be unable to escape the charges, and the wife’s sentence will probably be higher in order to make a public policy point about the harrowing outcomes of drug use.

Was Age a Factor in Robert Zelnick’s Vehicular Homicide Conviction?

You may have heard of Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent and professor of journalism at Boston University.  He was a news correspondent for over 20 years, with assignments at places like the Pentagon, Israel and Moscow during his long, successful career.  At age 73, he is currently a research fellow at Stanford University.  However, he is more recently known for an unfortunate incident that occurred on Oct. 7, 2011.

A Tragic Accident.

On that afternoon, Zelnick was leaving the Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts when he turned his 2006 BMW SUV into the path of a motorcycle.  The motorcycle was being driven by Brendan M. Kennedy, a 26-year-old on his way to work at the golf club’s restaurant. Kennedy could not stop his motorcycle in time to avoid the collision and was killed.  Zelnick was not speeding or under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.  However, Zelnick’s health was declining as he was battling Parkinson’s disease.

Zelnick Was Convicted of Vehicular Homicide.

Laws regarding the elements of vehicular homicide, and the sentence that charge carries, vary from state to state.  In Massachusetts, in order to convict someone of vehicular homicide, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was driving recklessly or negligently, which directly caused the death of another.

After a two-day bench trial before Judge J. Thomas Kirkman, Zelnick was found guilty of negligent vehicular homicide, which is a misdemeanor.  He was also charged with the civil infraction of failure to yield.  He was found to be negligent because, “given his health condition at the time, he should not have been operating a vehicle.”  He was sentenced to three years of probation and his driver’s license was revoked.  Zelnick, who knew the victim, was also ordered to write an apology letter to Brendan Kennedy’s family.

Is age a factor in driver safety?

Unfortunately, motor vehicle accidents at the hands of the elderly are not unusual.  In September of last year, Preston Carter who was about to turn 101, plowed into eleven people while backing out of a parking lot near an elementary school in Los Angeles.  He injured nine children.  Luckily no one was killed.

People were not so lucky, however, in 2003 when 86-year-old George Weller sped through an open-air street market in Santa Monica, California killing 10 people and injuring 63 more. He was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter in that case.

Richard Nix, executive director of Agingcare.com, suggests that many elderly drivers do not realize that their reflexes, hearing and eyesight are not what they used to be.  Nor do they consider that possible side effects of medications they are taking may also impair their judgment or coordination.  “People have been driving their whole life and have trouble believing they’re incapable of continuing,” he said. “They feel like their independence has been taken away,” says Nix.  But when they are no longer capable, something needs to be done.

How do we address the safety risks older drivers present?

According to some recent statistics, the number of American seniors (age 65 and older) will increase from 39 million in 2010 to 69 million in 2030. Today, only 15% of all drivers in our country are 65 or older, but by 2025, approximately 25% will be seniors.  Statistics show that drivers 70 and older have a high fatality rate per mile driven, second only to drivers younger than 25. So, if seniors are at an increased risk of endangering others on the road, what should be done?

Massachusetts State Senator Brian Joyce has been pushing a bill that would require drivers over the age of 85 to take a vision and road test every five years in order to retain their licenses. Currently, in most states, drivers are tested at 16 ½ when they first get their driver’s license, and then they are never road tested again.  Until the legislature effectively addresses this concern, the only solution may be to enlist the help of family and friends to persuade their loved ones to surrender their keys when their driving abilities have become compromised.

“Pleasant” Street a Harbor for Drugs

Once a man’s world, the underbelly of drug trafficking is resurfacing in once-peaceful neighborhoods. Massachusetts police recently raided an Easthampton apartment and arrested two female residents for narcotics trafficking and possession. While this is not an isolated incident in the increasingly criminal neighborhood of Pleasant Street, it certainly adds to the problem. Police alleged that Marcella Severance, 54, was the head of the operation. Police charged Severance with trafficking up to 100 grams of cocaine. At market value, the cocaine is worth nearly $4,800. Heather Martinez, 39, was charged with two counts of class B substance possession, Percocet and Suboxone, without a prescription.

Since January, police has recorded two cases of drug overdoses on Pleasant Street alone. Accordingly, Easthampton police and the Northwestern District Attorney’s Anti-Crime Task Force commenced their investigation and are hoping to make more drug-related arrests.

How Does Massachusetts Law Treat Cocaine Possession?

The law on drugs is clear in Massachusetts. One-time possession of cocaine, a class “B” substance, racks up to 1 year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, according to  MGL Chap.94C, Sect.34. In addition, the cocaine possessor also automatically loses his license for one year. If you are convicted of cocaine possession for the first time you could face up to 1 year in jail and a fine of up to $1000.

In terms of cocaine possession with intent to distribute, M.G.L. Chapter 94C Section 32A states that offenders will receive a 2 ½ year jail sentence and a fine of not less than $1,000 and up to $10,000. Recidivist offenders may face up to 3 years in state prison, a maximum sentence of 10 years, a $2,500 to $25,000 fine, and a mandatory 3 year license suspension.

According to MGL Chapt. 94C, Sect. 32E, 14-28 grams of cocaine warrant at least three and at most 15 years in state prison. If an individual is caught with 28 and up to 100 grams of cocaine, he or she may be imprisoned for five to twenty years. For 100 grams or more, but less than two hundred grams, the prison term becomes 10-20 years in state prison.

In this scenario, the drug operation’s ringleader possessed 97 grams of cocaine, and she may face up to 20 years in prison. However, a portion of her sentence may be mitigated if she can help police get more leads.

Public Policy Concerns

The public policy concerns inherent in the war on drugs are that it simply does not seem to end anytime soon. From marijuana sales among teens to large-scale operations, drug trafficking does not discriminate among race or educational background. Thus, law enforcement does not shy from bursting  into apartments, even ones inhabited by single women, or families, because enough cause has been shown in their investigations. Drug abuse will remain the black sheep of American society, and the means to get drugs are more accessible than ever.

Driving under the influence of your Smartphone

Nowadays, it is hard to find one person without a smartphone.  Even teens and tweens have them.  We talk and text, Facebook and Tweet.  And, although we know we should not, some of us are guilty of driving and texting.  But do we truly recognize the consequences?  Less than a month ago, Jason Seelye was involved in a texting and driving fatality right here in Boston. On July 22, 2013, he was driving from a party where he had been drinking. He lost control and wrecked his vehicle.  Seelye admitted to reading a text message at the time of the crash.  His passenger, Daniel Pinnick, was severely injured and later died.  This type of senseless death has become all too commonplace.

Texting and driving is a widespread problem

Far too many people believe that they can text and drive safely.  However, the statistics tell the real story.  According to the National Safety Council, there are approximately 1.6 million accidents each year caused by texting.  More disturbing is the fact that approximately 2,600 deaths resulted from the use of cell phones while driving.   Studies show that, when texting,  you are 6 times more likely to have an accident, making texting while driving worse than driving drunk.  The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that you are 23 times more likely to have an accident while texting.  Why?  Because texting is like driving after drinking four beers – it slows your reaction time by 18%.

What are state legislatures doing about the growing problems created by cell phones?

Considering these statistics, it was clear that new laws addressing this growing trend were necessary.  Washington was the first state to take action and, in 2007, passed the first texting while driving ban.  Now, only 9 states do not have a complete ban on texting and driving.  Fifteen states have gone one step further and completely banned the use of hand-held devices while driving.  Currently, only Montana and South Carolina do not have any cell phone or texting laws on the books.

Massachusetts ban on texting and cell phone use while driving

Massachusetts does not have a general ban on hand-held devices, but has banned texting while driving for all drivers.  School bus drivers and drivers under the age of 18 years are banned from cell phone use while driving.  Massachusetts’ law, known as The Safe Driving Law, became effective on September 30, 2010. According to Massachusetts officials, they “foresee rigorous enforcement of this law.”  Interestingly enough, in 2012 Montana (which has no bans) was reported as generally having the highest motor vehicle fatality rate, while Massachusetts was reported as having the lowest.

Can texting bans truly be enforced?

While the need for bans can hardly be debated, are the bans working?  Some believe they cannot really be enforced.  Logically, texting bans beg the question: how can a police officer tell if the driver is texting?  Police officers will no doubt have a difficult time proving this violation, since the person they stop could have just dialing a phone number, which at this time is not illegal.  One set of researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee believe the answer is to remain consistent and enforce the laws as you would drunk driving laws.  In their opinion, enforcement of the bans “must be universal and considered a primary violation.” Certainly the mere existence of the bans can deter some from the dangerous behavior, and perhaps that is all we can hope for.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s long awaited trial

The trial for one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives just began in Boston.  James “Whitey” Bulger – the alleged Winter Hill Gang leader – eluded law enforcement for decades.  According to reports, he fled Boston in 1994 and was captured 17 years later living in Santa Monica, California.

Described as a modern day Robin Hood, Bulger initially achieved prominence in south Boston by helping out his working class neighbors while keeping drug dealers at bay.   Some even thought of him as a “near-mythical figure…” While revered by some, others reportedly saw a different side to Bulger – that of a cold-blooded killer.  Law enforcement alleges that Bulger was a hardened mob-boss, and is implicated in the murders of 19 people over the course of 30 years.

The Charges

Bulger is on trial as the result of a 32-count racketeering (RICO) indictment, including his involvement in the 19 murders.

RICO is a federal charge of racketeering, commonly used in organized crime and mob trials.  It is broadly defined as the act of operating an illegal business or scheme for profit, perpetrated by a structured group.

Racketeering can involve several different criminal acts such as murder, fraud, illegal gambling, money laundering or prostitution. Often, mob bosses or gang leaders can be found guilty of racketeering charges for crimes they ordered.  This means someone may be found guilty of murder even if they weren’t the one who actually committed the act.

Here Bulger’s alleged illegal actions include:

•19 counts of murder
•Extortion
•Narcotics distribution
•Conspiracy to commit murder
•Conspiracy to commit extortion

For the prosecution to prove Bulger is guilty of racketeering, the government must convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Bulger was responsible for at least one of these crimes.  If convicted, Bulger could face life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

The prosecution also alleges that Bulger was an FBI informant – a claim that Bulger fervently denies. On Monday, June 24, a federal agent testified that Bulger [Informant 1544] provided details concerning the Mafia, tips in murders and other insider information leading to imprisonment for others.

The Defense

While the defense strategy will be revealed over the next weeks and months of the trial, it is likely that Bulger’s criminal defense attorneys will attack the credibility of the witnesses testifying against Bulger.  If the jurors fail to believe the prosecution’s witnesses, then the government won’t have met its burden to show Bulger’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Witness Credibility

One of the star witnesses against Bulger is Johnny Martorano, a man who has confessed to killing 20 people.   As the result of a plea agreement, Martorano served only 14 years in jail. In a deal with the government to testify against Bulger, he was released from jail after serving only 12.

Can the jury trust the testimony of a convicted killer?  Martorano has clearly benefited from agreeing to testify against Bulger.  He [Martorano] has also sold the film rights to his life story, as well as collaborated on a book entitled Hitman.  It appears that Martorano has nothing to lose by testifying against Bulger, which weakens his credibility.

In fact, another witness for the prosecution admitted during cross-examination that inmates know they can get “extraordinary benefits” if they agree to testify for the prosecution.  As is often the case in mob trials, several of the other witnesses for the prosecution have credibility issues and are linked to criminal activity.

Defending Bulger’s Reputation

The defense is also seeking to lift the current gag order, preventing Bulger’s attorneys from speaking to the media.  Bulger’s team wants to be able to fight back in the press and on television, which has primarily portrayed Bulger in a negative light.   Too often, the public forms an opinion about a criminal defendant’s guilt or innocence that is hard to shake, even if the defendant is eventually acquitted.

The Bulger trial is expected to last up to three months and will provide a glimpse into alleged mob life in the 1970s and 80s. Bulger has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Sources:

A Guide To The Trial Of James Whitey Bulger, BostonHerald.com June 18, 2013

Whitey Bulger’s 700-page FBI informant file discussed at trial; defense insists he wasn’t an informant, Boston.com June 24, 2013

Ex-FBI Agent to Testify Against Bulger, ABC News.com, June 24, 2013

Whitey Bulger Trial Enters 3rd Week; Here’s What You Need To Know, June 24, 2013 Huffington Post

The Case for Trying the Boston Marathon Suspects in Massachusetts.

Several weeks after the harrowing events that engulfed the Boston Marathon this year, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is set to face in federal court two counts that encompass the scope of his barbarous acts: one count of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, and one count of using an explosive device in the malicious destruction of property. He will and should be tried in federal court for this act of terror, but that reality should not allow Massachusetts, a state well equipped to try terrorism cases, to be excluded from the scene.

A Massachusetts Jury Should Have State Law at Its Disposal

While innocent until proven guilty, the younger Tsarnaev was found in large part thanks to the FBI’s diligent work in using surveillance cameras and photographic evidence. The odds of acquittal here appear slim. Although there certainly is a federal case to be made against anyone who uses a weapon of mass destruction to kill Americans, the people of Massachusetts should have their day in court, too—especially given the legal infrastructure in the state against terrorism.

Massachusetts State Law is Armed to Fight Terror

In the wake of the heartbreaking events of September 11, 2001, the Massachusetts legislature convened and passed an anti-terror bill a year later. The statute, An Act Providing Against Terrorism, amends a number of areas within the statutory code to allow for broader definitions various items. It puts tighter restrictions on fireworks manufacturers, adding provisions for “hoax substances” in addition to explosive devices. It also provides for incarceration of individuals for use or development of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.  The relevant provision in this case, should prosecutors choose to go forward, would be section 148 of the General Laws §12, which, after this amendment, reads: “No building or structure shall be used for the manufacturing or storage of explosive materials without a permit issued by the marshal.” There is certainly no reason to believe that the Tsarnaev household had a permit to be manufacturing explosives. With that clear, this provision allows for, in the event of conviction, two years imprisonment or $5,000 in fines just for having one explosive. The provisions also allow for a charge to someone who causes another to believe that an explosive device is in a public area—a potential charge depending on what authorities discover about the recently arrested associates of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Beyond Terrorism: Murder Charges

But these provisions are merely proof that Massachusetts’s legislators intended to provide for the judiciary to be able to handle such complex terrorism cases. That does not make their intent that this be the exclusive means of prosecution. Here, the major crime to be tried is the murder of several individuals, children, and the battery of nearly one hundred more. These charges are state charges, and as such will not get to go before a federal jury. There may not be a significant difference in outcome here, but symbolically, there appears to be no reason to deprive the people of Boston the chance to try Tsarnaev for mass murder.

Lethal Allston Fire Sparks New Talk of Criminal Sanctions for Landlord Violations

An Allston fire that claimed the life of 22-year-old Boston University student Binland Lee has triggered a new conversation on the importance of abiding by city landlord/tenant laws and the effectiveness of current enforcement measures.

Fire Caused By Discarded Smoking Material

According to Masslive.com, the Boston Fire Department estimated that the fire began around 6:30 A.M. on Sunday, April 28. Officials determined the cause of the fire to be carelessly disposed of smoking material, which resulted in the fire starting in an interior staircase that constituted the only entry to the second floor and attic. The fire engulfed the three-story house and, in addition to taking Lee’s life, injured six firefighters and nine-residents. Firefighters found Lee in the attic apartment, which they were unable to reach due to flames blocking the only pathway leading upstairs.

19 People Estimated To Be Living In 7-to-9 Bedroom Home, Landlord Cited

Fire Captain Patrick Ellis told the Boston Herald that firefighters were unable to find interior access to the second floor from the front first door. Additionally, inspectional services were unable to find any record of the building having requested a rental reinspection­­­––a required procedure every time a new tenant moves in––since 1992. An estimated nineteen tenants resided in the two-family home at the time of the fire. Boston’s Inspectional Services Department cited the landlord, Anna Belokurova, for overcrowding and renting an illegal basement apartment.

Bill Proposing Criminal Sanctions For Landlords Could Get More Attention

Belokurova could very well face criminal negligence charges, placing this story at the crux of criminal and property law. Currently, Massachusetts’s law sets the bar very high for turning a landlord sanction into a criminal action. However, this tragedy comes at the tail end of a push by certain legislatures to amend the law to more adequately protect tenants. A bill filed in the legislature in late March would subject landlords to up to two and a half years in jail for egregious instances of overcrowding, as per the fire code, and would allow inspectors to seek additional criminal complaints and fines of up to $15,000. In light of recent events, one could expect the bill to garner new attention from those who feel the current system’s sanctions lead to landlords integrating fines into their business models.

Landlords: Be Sure To Keep Up With Requirements

The Allston blaze serves as a reminder for both landlords and tenants to read up on their rights and responsibilities. Landlords should actively research the law to make sure they comply with state requirements. In Boston, particularly, inspections are mandatory with every new tenant (as noted above, the home in question was twenty years behind on inspections). Many resources are available, such as the City of Boston’s FAQ for landlord and tenant requirements and the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation’s list of requirements from landlords.

Searching your cell phone and getting evidence against you

 Recently I blogged about the constitutional rights of each person has against unreasonable search and seizure.  I explained that there certain things that a police can search and use without it being considered a violation of a person’s constitutional rights.  One thing that the police are allowed to do is to put a license plate through their computer system to get more information about the driver or the car.  

The courts have also long allowed police to search a person after an arrest.  For the most part, the police are allowed to look for any weapons or drugs after an arrest.  The police are also allowed to do an inventory of all the items on a person during the booking process. The real point to the inventory search is to take all the items from the person prior to putting the suspect into a holding cell.  The police are supposed to account for each item that is taken from the suspect and return all items to the person upon release.  Obviously, the police are not required and will not give back any contraband to the suspect upon release. 

The courts have long allowed the police to take a cell phone from a suspect and put it with the person’s belongings.  Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts highest court has ruled that the police do not need a search warrant to look at a person’s cell phone.  The case started with the arrest of two drug dealers in Boston.  The police ended up arresting both drug dealers and seized their cell phones.  The police didn’t get a search warrant and looked at the suspects’ call lists.  The defendants argued that the police violated their constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure by looking at the call lists on their phone without a warrant.  The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the police and said that they don’t necessarily need to obtain a warrant to look at the call list.  Under this ruling, the police can search the phone right away when the suspect is first arrested or later on at the police station without a warrant. 

The court stated that police have always been allowed to hunt for evidence of a crime from the person’s belongings.  The Supreme Judicial Court stated that the limited search of the cell phone’s call list didn’t violate the defendants’ constitutional rights.  It is unclear how far this ruling will actually allow the police to search.  The Supreme Judicial Court did not rule if the police would be able to look through text messages or listen to voice mails without a warrant.  With phones becoming more sophisticated, many phones are no longer a one purpose device. Smart phones have the capability to house incredible information that goes beyond making phone calls.  If you look at a person’s smart phone it looks more like a computer than a traditional land line. Smart phones can have a person’s Facebook account, Twitter feed, person documents, notes, contact information, and calendars on them. 

In the past, the police can still search the phone, but it would usually come after obtaining a search warrant from a judge.  Now, that judicial review, that check and balance of getting a search warrant has been taken out of the equation.  Though it may not seem like a big deal as this ruling has only focused on the right to look at a suspect’s call history on the phone, the ruling has a significant effect.  The Court is allowing the police look at a device that potentially has an incredible amount of personal information without any oversight at all.  The court did stated that this ruling doesn’t give the police unlimited authority to search a suspect.  As different state courts across the country debate this issue of a person’s cell phone and the right of privacy, it will be interesting to see how Massachusetts continues to deal with this problem.