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Vasquez v. Commonwealth

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

March 28, 2019

PEDRO VASQUEZ
v.
COMMONWEALTH.

          Heard: November 5, 2018.

          Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on May 25, 2018. The case was considered by Gaziano, J.

          Merritt Schnipper for the defendant.

          Katherine E. McMahon, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          LOWY, J.

         In this appeal we review and apply the legal standards for bail decisions in cases where the defendant has been charged with murder in the first degree and the judge must decide whether the defendant should be admitted to bail, or held without bail to assure the defendant's appearance at future court proceedings. The defendant, [1] Pedro Vasquez, has been in pretrial detention since his arrest on January 5, 2015, for the murder of his girlfriend. Following the defendant's indictment and arraignment for murder in the first degree and related charges, a judge of the Superior Court ordered him to be held without right to bail, and the defendant's four subsequent requests for admission to bail in the Superior Court were all denied. The defendant then challenged the denial of his bail requests in a petition for relief under G. L. c. 211, § 3, which was also denied by a single justice of the county court. In this appeal from the judgment of the single justice, the defendant contends that, under the constitutional and other legal standards applicable to bail decisions, the Commonwealth's anticipated evidence against him was not strong enough to justify his pretrial detention without bail, given his local family ties and lack of past court defaults or "meaningful" prior convictions. We conclude that a defendant charged with murder in the first degree has no right to bail, but may be admitted to bail in the discretion of the judge. The judge's exercise of discretion should not rest solely on a presumption against bail, but should be based on a careful review of the specific details of the case and the defendant's history. The judge should consider the nature and circumstances of the offense and weigh the defendant's risk of flight in light of the strength or weakness of the Commonwealth's case and the potential penalty of a sentence to life in prison. Further appropriate considerations include the defendant's family ties, financial resources, length of residence in the community, character and mental condition, and record of convictions and appearances at court proceedings or of any previous flight to avoid prosecution or any failure to appear at any court proceedings, along with the other factors listed in G. L. c. 276, §§ 57 and 58, insofar as they are relevant. The defendant is entitled to representation by counsel at a hearing[2]and the opportunity to present argument concerning the relevant bail factors.

         Pretrial detention without bail is appropriate where the judge concludes, based on a preponderance of the evidence and the relevant factors for bail, that it is necessary to assure the defendant's appearance at future court proceedings. The decision must be accompanied by a statement of findings and reasons, either in writing or orally on the record. Finally, when a bail order comes before a judge for reconsideration, the judge should also consider, among other factors, the length of the defendant's pretrial detention and the equities of the case, including the extent of the prosecution's responsibility for the delay, and the strength of the Commonwealth's case, especially if the character of the evidence has changed.

         Applying these standards in the present case, we conclude that the bail judge did not abuse his discretion or commit an error of law in denying the defendant's bail request, and therefore affirm the single justice's judgment denying the defendant's petition.

         Background.

         We summarize the facts based on the record available to the bail judge, reserving certain details for further discussion below. Early in the morning of January 5, 2015, police officers responding to a 911 call discovered the body of a woman slumped over in the passenger seat of a sport utility vehicle (SUV) parked on the side of the road in Springfield. She had suffered a single gunshot wound to the head and was bleeding profusely. Attempts to revive her failed, and she was declared dead at the scene. The victim was later identified as the defendant's girlfriend.

         Detectives discovered that a home across the street from the crime scene maintained a video security system. The detectives viewed the videotape footage from this system and found that it included the sequence of events surrounding the shooting. The videotape shows the SUV stopping and parking on the street. The vehicle's rear passenger door on the driver's side opens, and an argument between a man and a woman in Spanish can be heard. The woman demands that the man return her keys and threatens to call the police. A single gunshot can then be heard as the male leaves the vehicle and runs away.

         Police also interviewed the victim's family and friends, including the victim's son, her brother, and her brother's girlfriend. The officers learned that the defendant and the victim had been romantically involved and had lived together for four or five years, along with the victim's son. The officers also learned that there had been a history of domestic violence between the defendant and the victim. The victim's son, her brother, and her brother's girlfriend were all familiar with the defendant due to his relationship with the victim. At the police station, the officers played the security videotape separately for each of them, first playing only the audio portion and then showing the video portion to each witness. In each case, they identified the voices of the man and the woman as the defendant and the victim; the victim's brother also noted that the victim had used the defendant's name twice. After being shown the video recording, they also identified the man who fled the vehicle as appearing to be the defendant, although they could not make a positive identification because the man's face was not visible.

         Based on this information, a warrant was issued for the defendant's arrest, and he was taken into custody later that evening. Following the defendant's indictment and arraignment on charges of murder in the first degree, G. L. c. 265, § 1; unlawful possession of a firearm, G. L. c. 269, § 10 (a.); and unlawful possession of a loaded firearm, G. L. c. 269, § 10 (n), a Superior Court judge ordered him to be held without right to bail in May 2015. Judges of the Superior Court also denied the defendant's four subsequent requests for admission to bail after hearings in July 2016, December 2016, December 2017, and May 2018. Following the December 2017 and May 2018 decisions of a judge (bail judge) to deny bail, the defendant then filed a petition for review under G. L. c. 211, § 3, in the county court, which was denied by a single justice without hearing in June 2 018.[3]

         Discussion.

         1. Standard of review.

         As we explain further infra, bail decisions concerning defendants charged with murder in the first degree are subject to the discretion of the bail judge, and therefore the bail judge's decision is reviewed for abuse of discretion or error of law. See Commonwealth v. Marshall, 373 Mass. 65, 66-67 (1977) (applying abuse of discretion standard in reviewing denial of bail where defendant was charged with murder in first degree); Commonwealth v. Baker, 343 Mass. 162, 168-169 (1961) (considering whether denial of bail where defendant was charged with murder in first degree may have been tainted by error of law). In this case, the single justice denied the defendant's petition under G. L. c. 211, § 3, because the single justice concluded that the bail judge did not abuse his discretion in rejecting the defendant's request for bail.

         As a general matter, we review decisions of the single justice under G. L. c. 211, § 3, for clear error of law or abuse of discretion. See Brangan v. Commonwealth, 477 Mass. 691, 697 (2017); Commonwealth v. Chism, 476 Mass. 171, 176 (2017); Boston Herald, Inc. v. Sharpe, 432 Mass. 593, 602 (2000) (Sharpe) . In this instance, however, the single justice did not exercise his discretion, [4] and consequently, we focus our attention on his legal ruling that the bail judge did not abuse his discretion. We review this legal ruling independently to determine whether it is erroneous, without giving any deference to the single justice's decision. See Sharpe, supra at 603. In effect, this means that we must address the same legal issue presented to the single justice: whether the bail judge's decision to deny the defendant's bail request involved an abuse of discretion or error of law. See Chism, supra at 182-185 (directly considering whether trial judge abused his discretion in denying impoundment motion, without deference to rulings on that issue by single justice of Appeals Court and single justice of county court under G. L. c. 211, § 3).

         Insofar as the bail judge's decision involved an exercise of discretion, we must accord it great deference, and we will not overturn his decision for abuse of discretion merely because we would have reached a different result. L.L. v. Commonwealth, 470 Mass. 169, 185 n.27 (2014) . But that deference is not unlimited. "[A] judge's discretionary decision constitutes an abuse of discretion where we conclude the judge made a clear error of judgment in weighing the factors relevant to the decision, such that the decision falls outside the range of reasonable alternatives" (quotation and citation omitted). Id. To the extent that the bail judge's decision is premised on legal rulings, we consider those legal issues independently and without deference. See Sharpe, 432 Mass. at 603.

         The defendant urges us to go further, asking us to conduct a de novo review of the Commonwealth's evidence against him and, in particular, of the bail judge's statement that the Commonwealth had a "strong case" against the defendant. We decline to do so. The defendant argues that the bail judge's characterization of the Commonwealth's case as "strong" should be reviewed de novo because it is analogous to a factual finding made by a motion judge based on documentary evidence when a defendant has moved to suppress evidence, citing Commonwealth v. Melo, 472 Mass. 278, 293 (2015) ("We review de novo any findings of the motion judge that were based entirely on the documentary evidence . . ."). But the bail judge's statement was not a factual finding, so much as the judge's general assessment of the weight of the evidence made as part of his over-all discretionary bail decision. While we must consider whether the bail judge's assessment of the evidence involved a clear error of judgment, it is not appropriate for us to substitute our own assessment for his in reviewing his exercise of discretion.

         2. Legal standards for bail decisions where the defendant has been charged with murder in the first degree. a. Judicial discretion.

         Whether to grant bail to a defendant who has been charged with murder in the first degree is a matter for the bail judge's discretion. In Commonwealth v. Baker, 343 Mass. 162 (1961), this court reviewed the history of the common law and statutes pertaining to bail in such cases. We noted that "[f]rom early colonial times bail appears to have been allowable in the court's discretion in capital cases . . . and as a matter of right in all other cases." Id. at 165. We also determined that this basic common-law framework had not been altered by subsequent statutory enactments. Id. at 166-168. In particular, we noted that G. L. c. 276, §§ 42 and 57, which were the principal bail statutes in force when Baker was decided, did not define nonbailable offenses. Id. at 166. We therefore concluded that "one charged with the capital offence of murder in the first degree may be admitted to bail, and that bail in such a case is not a matter of right but is discretionary with the judge, who is to give due weight to the nature and circumstances of the case." Id. at 168. Thus, we held that if the bail judge had denied bail based on the mistaken view that murder in the first degree was a nonbailable offense, that decision would be tainted by an error of law, but if the judge exercised his discretion, there was no error. Id.

         Although there have been significant developments in the law of bail and pretrial release during the one-half century since Baker was decided, the court's conclusion -- that whether to grant bail to a defendant charged with murder in the first degree is a matter for the judge's discretion -- remains sound. Notably, in 1971 the Legislature rewrote G. L. c. 276, § 58, to establish a presumption of release on personal recognizance pending trial. See St. 1971, c. 473; Commonwealth v. Ray, 435 Mass. 249, 254 (2001); Commesso v. Commonwealth, 369 Mass. 368, 369, 371 (1975); Matter of Troy, 364 Mass. 15, 35 n.10 (1973). Importantly, however, § 58 specifically excludes from its coverage persons charged with "an offense punishable by death," and we have interpreted that provision to mean that § 58 does not apply to persons charged with murder in the first degree, notwithstanding our holding that the death penalty statute then in effect was unconstitutional. See Commonwealth v. Flaherty, 384 Mass. 802, 802-803 (1981), citing District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist. v. Watson, 381 Mass. 648 (1980). Accordingly, "[s]ince the statute does not apply, the question of bail for a person charged with murder in the first degree is a matter of discretion." Abrams v. Commonwealth, 391 Mass. 1019, 1019 (1984) (rejecting defendant's contention that G. L. c. 276, § 58, restricts judicial discretion to revise or revoke bail in murder in first degree case). See Farley v. Commonwealth, 433 Mass. 1004, 1004 (2000); Magraw v. Commonwealth, 429 Mass. 1004, 1004 (1999) .

         b. Factors to be considered in exercising discretion.

         In exercising discretion to decide whether a person charged with murder in the first degree should be admitted to bail, a judge should be guided by the same factors that apply to bail decisions in other types of cases, although the relative weight given to these factors will be affected by the nature and gravity of the offense charged. These factors include, but are not limited to, the common-law historical factors for bail, such as the nature and circumstances of the offense charged and the accused's family ties, financial resources, length of residence in the community, character and mental condition, and record of convictions and appearances at court proceedings or of any previous flight to avoid prosecution or any failure to appear at any court proceedings.[5] Judges should also consider the additional factors listed in G. L. c. 276, § 57, second par., where the murder or related offenses charged involve domestic abuse or violation of a restraining order, as defined therein.[6]Judges may also wish to consult the list of factors set out in G. L. c. 276, § 58, first par., [7] even though that statute does not apply to cases where the defendant has been charged with murder in the first degree, because those factors elaborate upon the common-law ...


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