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Commonwealth v. Alves

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

August 27, 2014

Commonwealth
v.
Octaviano Alves

Argued June 9, 2014

Complaint received and sworn to in the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department on March 7, 2012.

A motion to expunge court and criminal records was heard by James W. Coffey, J., and a motion for reconsideration was heard by him.

Hung Tran for the defendant.

Amanda Teo, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Present: Kantrowitz, Agnes, & Hines, JJ.[1]

OPINION

Agnes, J.

The single question before us is whether the proper remedy for a clerical error that results in the issuance of a criminal complaint against a person who not only did not commit the crime, but also was never the intended target of the police investigation, is to seal the record pursuant to G. L. c. 276, § 100C. In the unusual circumstances of this case, we conclude that even though the error was not corrected until the eve of trial when the complaint was dismissed, the statutory remedy of sealing the record was not the only option available to the judge,

Page 211

and that an expungement order is appropriate.[2]

[15 N.E.3d 248] Background .

Due to a clerical error, Octaviano Alves (date of birth: 1983) (Alves 1983), was charged with leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident after causing property damage in violation of G. L. c. 90, § 24(2)( a ) (criminal docket number 1207CR1074). Alves 1983 did not commit the offense, nor was he ever suspected of committing the offense. The actual perpetrator, i.e., the driver of the vehicle who left the scene, was Octaviano Alves (date of birth: 1977) (Alves 1977). Alves 1977, the correct defendant, was apprehended by the police, but was not arrested. A citation was delivered to him in hand. The police accurately recorded Alves 1977's name, date of birth, Massachusetts license number, and home address. The police filed a timely application for a criminal complaint against Alves 1977. After a " show cause" hearing attended by Alves 1977, see G. L. c. 218, § 35A, as amended through St. 2004, c. 49, § 200, probable cause to issue process was found to exist, but, due to a clerical error, the summons and the complaint contained an incorrect date of birth that corresponded to Alves 1983.

Although the summons and complaint were mailed to Alves 1977's address, he did not appear for arraignment and was defaulted. However, due to the clerical error, the default was recorded incorrectly on the record of Alves 1983, who learned about it during a subsequent appearance in another court. The source of the error was not immediately apparent, and did not become clear to all concerned until about one year after the incident occurred, when, on February 5, 2013, the trial in the case was set to begin. At that time, the prosecutor, the police, the judge, and the probation department agreed that Alves 1983 was factually innocent of the crime and was never the intended target of the police investigation. The judge decided against substituting the correct date of birth on the court and probation records and, instead, decided to dismiss the criminal complaint against Alves 1983 and to issue a new criminal complaint against Alves 1977.

Page 212

The judge suggested that counsel for Alves 1983 file a motion to expunge his criminal record. Counsel filed such a motion, but when the matter came before a different judge, he denied the motion.[3]

Discussion .

General Laws c. 276, § 100C, second par., as amended by St. 2010, c. 256, § § 131 & 132, provides in part that " [i]n any criminal case wherein a nolle prosequi has been entered, or a dismissal has been entered by the court, and it appears to the court that substantial justice would best be served, the court shall direct the clerk to seal the records of the [15 N.E.3d 249] proceedings in his files. The clerk shall forthwith notify the commissioner of probation and the probation officer of the courts in which the proceedings occurred or were initiated who shall likewise seal the records of the proceedings in their files." The statute does not provide for alternative remedies such as expungement,[4] and does not contain any suggestion that under certain circumstances the Legislature intended that the records to which it applies would be destroyed. See Commonwealth v. Gavin G., 437 Mass. 470, 482, 772 N.E.2d 1067 (2002).

When a motion to expunge a criminal record is filed on behalf of a person who was charged with, but not convicted of, a crime, the proper response in all but the most exceptional circumstances will be to deny relief because the Legislature has prescribed that sealing a record is the appropriate remedy when a criminal case is terminated by a prosecutor filing a nolle prosequi under Mass.R.Crim.P. 19, 378 Mass. 888 (1979), or a judge dismisses the case. See

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Commonwealth v. Boe, 456 Mass. 337, 344-346 & n.13, 924 N.E.2d 239 (2010).[5] Thus, whether records subject to G. L. c. 276, § 100C, pertain to charges dismissed prior to or subsequent to arraignment makes no difference: in either case, the remedy for a charge that is dismissed or nol prossed because it is discovered that the person charged did not commit the offense is almost always to seal the record.[6]

That sealing is the default position is illustrated by Commonwealth v. Boe, supra at 338-339. In Boe, the defendant was the owner of the vehicle that reportedly left the scene of an accident. Even though the victim described the driver of the vehicle as a short Hispanic male, the police charged the female owner. She was arraigned on the charge, but when the mistake was discovered, the case was nol prossed and the judge ordered that the records pertaining to the erroneous charge be expunged. Ibid . In reversing the order of expungement, the Supreme Judicial Court explained that the sole remedy in such a case is to seal the defendant's record in accordance with G. L. c. 276, § 100C. See id. at 348 (" That Boe should not have been charged with a crime in the first place does not render the information in the record inaccurate or misleading, and, in such circumstances, the Legislature has concluded that the appropriate remedy is [15 N.E.3d 250] the sealing of her record" [footnote omitted]).

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the sealing statute does not authorize expungement as an alternative remedy, there are exceptional cases that do not come within the scope of G. L. c. 276, § 100C, in which expungement of criminal records maintained by the court and the Commissioner of Probation is authorized. See Commonwealth v. Moe, 463 Mass. 370, 373, 974 N.E.2d 619 (2012), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 1606, 185 L.Ed.2d 582 (2013). In Moe, the Supreme Judicial Court

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recognized that ordinary factual mistakes about the identity of the perpetrator of a crime that result in criminal charges being brought against an innocent person do not provide an occasion for the remedy of expungement, even when the erroneous information supplied to the police was the result of intentional misrepresentations by another person. Id. at 376 (" [T]he police officer applied for the criminal complaint based on erroneous information. The complaining officer may have acted negligently in failing to investigate further [the accuser's] story, but negligence is not fraud" ). According to the analysis in Moe, in determining whether the remedy of sealing is the exclusive option, the critical question is whether the records accurately reflect the charging decision made by the prosecution and the police.

" More important, it is clear that the officer intended to initiate the complaint against the defendant himself -- not an impostor. Thus, this is not a case such as S.M.F .,[7] where, because of the actions of the impostor, the court records themselves were completely false and misleading. Like Boe, the defendant should not have been charged with assault by means of a dangerous weapon because no such assault ever occurred. Nonetheless, the criminal records reflect accurately the pertinent underlying facts, namely, that he was charged with this crime, and that the case was later disposed of by entry of a nolle prosequi."

Ibid .

Page 215

The present case is the rare case in which the criminal charge was a fiction in the sense that it was never the intention of the police or the prosecutor to initiate criminal charges against the person who was charged. See Commonwealth v. S.M.F., 40 Mass.App.Ct. 42, 45, 660 N.E.2d 701 (1996). " No rational public policy favors the preservation of a fictitious record. Yet the capacity of a fictitious [15 N.E.3d 251] record to do mischief is considerable. Criminal records, even if sealed, can form a cloud of prosecution. Nobody who is entirely disconnected from the criminal episode should be subjected to such a cloud." Id. at 46. See Police Commr. of Boston v. Municipal Ct. of Dorchester, 374 Mass. 640, 658, 374 N.E.2d 272 (1978) (no valid law enforcement purpose served by maintaining inaccurate records that have no bearing on a person's likelihood of reoffending).

Conclusion .

In all cases governed by G. L. c. 276, § 100C, sealing a criminal record is the exclusive remedy, and a judge lacks authority to allow a motion to expunge. This case falls into that narrow and exceptional class of cases in which the person originally charged with the crime was not only factually innocent, but was never the intended target of law enforcement. The presence of these factors takes the case outside the scope of the sealing statute because there is no public policy that favors the retention of such spurious records. Accordingly, the order denying the motion by Alves 1983 to expunge all criminal records pertaining to criminal docket number 1207CR1074 arising out of the incident of January 12, 2012, is vacated. The case is remanded to the District Court for the entry of an order allowing the motion.[8]

So ordered.


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