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Commonwealth v. Gernrich

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Worcester

January 12, 2017

COMMONWEALTH
v.
BRIAN E. GERNRICH.

          Heard: September 8, 2016.

         Complaint received and sworn to in the Clinton Division of the District Court Department on June 4, 2014.

         The case was heard by Christopher P. LoConto, J. The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Darla J. Mondou for the defendant.

          Michelle R. King, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Botsford, Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          HINES, J.

         Following a jury-waived trial in the Clinton Division of the District Court, the defendant, Brian E. Gernrich, was convicted of making a false report of a crime to a police officer in violation of G. L. c. 269, § 13A. The complaint charged that the defendant, an inmate, falsely reported a sexual assault to a deputy sheriff employed at the facility. The defendant appealed, claiming that a deputy sheriff is not a police officer within the meaning of the statute and, as a consequence, the evidence was insufficient to sustain the conviction. We granted his application for direct appellate review. The issue as presented here requires us to determine whether, as the Commonwealth argues, the term "police officers" used in G. L. c. 269, § 13A, includes the broad class of law enforcement officers authorized to perform certain police duties. We conclude, for the reasons explained below, that a deputy sheriff is not a "police officer" within the meaning of G. L. c. 269, § 13A; the statute includes within its reach only those law enforcement officers with the full authority to serve as police officers under G. L. c. 41, § 98. Therefore, we reverse the defendant's conviction.

         1. Background.

         The material facts are undisputed. In May, 2014, the defendant was an inmate at the Worcester County house of correction (jail). A correction officer entered the defendant's cell to conduct an inspection. After inspecting the cell, the officer told the defendant that material covering the air vent would have to be removed. The defendant then walked out of the cell, exclaiming, "Well why are you touching [my] dick?"

         After his interaction with the correction officer, the defendant telephoned the Prison Rape Elimination Act[1] (PREA) hotline[2] and reported that the correction officer, who earlier had inspected his cell, sexually assaulted him. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 15601 et seq. (2012). According to the report, the correction officer called the defendant into the cell and then touched the defendant's penis. In accordance with the PREA protocol, the defendant's report was forwarded to Captain David S. Anderson, the commanding officer on duty at the time of the defendant's report. Captain Anderson interviewed the defendant, who repeated his allegation that the correction officer had touched the defendant's penis.

         After this interview, Captain Anderson sent an electronic mail (e-mail) message summarizing the defendant's report to officials in the Worcester County sheriff's department. Eric Scott, a Worcester County deputy sheriff designated as a PREA certified investigator, received the e-mail message and commenced an investigation. As part of the investigation, Deputy Scott interviewed the defendant, the defendant's cellmate, and the accused correction officer. Deputy Scott also viewed a surveillance video recording of the incident. After concluding his investigation, Deputy Scott determined that the defendant's allegation was unfounded. The matter was referred to the Worcester County district attorney's office, and the defendant was charged with a violation of G. L. c. 269, § 13A, based on the report to Deputy Scott.

         At the trial, the defendant argued that a deputy sheriff is not a police officer within the meaning of G. L. c. 269, § 13A.[3]The judge, citing "the trend [in the case law] . . . treat[ing] [d]eputy [s]heriffs as police ...


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