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Commonwealth v. Adams

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

June 27, 2019

COMMONWEALTH
v.
MARK ADAMS.

          Heard: January 7, 2019.

         Complaint received and sworn to in the Lowell Division of the District Court Department on December 29, 2016.

         The case was tried before John F. Coffey, J.

         The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

          Ilir Kavaja for the defendant.

          Melissa Weisgold Johnsen, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Oren Nimni, Luke Ryan, & Molly Ryan Strehorn, for Committee for Public Counsel Services & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

          Lisa J. Steele, for Commonwealth Second Amendment, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

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

          GAZIANO, J.

         We address, for the first time, whether interference with the lawful duties of a police officer is a common-law crime in Massachusetts.

         Part II, c. 6, art. 6, of the Massachusetts Constitution provides that the common law that existed before the 1780 adoption of that Constitution was "preserved and continued," and remains in full force until altered or repealed by the Legislature. Crocker v. Justices of the Superior Court, 208 Mass. 162, 171 (1911). After an examination of our Nineteenth Century jurisprudence concerning the illegal acts of "obstructing" or "hindering" a police officer, as well as other authoritative sources, we conclude that interference with the lawful duties of a police officer was, and continues to be, a common-law crime, albeit subject to carefully constructed limitations to avoid criminalizing constitutionally protected activities.

         Because those limitations were exceeded in this case, we conclude that the evidence was not sufficient to establish that the defendant committed the crime of interference with a police officer.[1]

         1. Background.

         a. Facts.

         We recite the facts in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth. See Commonwealth v. Boiling, 462 Mass. 440, 442 (2012) . On December 28, 2016, the Tyngsboro police department suspended the defendant's class A license to carry firearms. At 8:15 £.M. that day, three police officers went to the defendant's home to serve written notice of the suspension, and to retrieve his firearms and ammunition. Sergeant Charles Melanson knocked on the front door, while two other officers stood to each side of the door.

         The defendant, who was at home with his wife and teenaged son, answered the knock and stepped outside to speak with the officers. Melanson explained that the officers were there to serve a suspension of the defendant's license to carry firearms, and to take his firearms (numbering fifteen) and ammunition from his home. Melanson served the defendant with written notice of the license suspension. The defendant became argumentative and visibly upset. He repeatedly yelled that he was not going to give up his firearms, and that he intended to telephone his attorney. He told his wife, who had come to the door, not to allow the officers to enter.

         The defendant attempted to go back inside, but Melanson put his hand on the front door and held it shut. Again, the officers told the defendant that they were there to confiscate his firearms. He responded by insisting that he was not going to give up his guns, and requested an opportunity to consult with his attorney. While this was going on, Sergeant Mark Borque went up the front stairs and walked into the house to speak with the defendant's wife. The defendant told his wife not to answer any questions and to telephone his attorney. He protested that he was "[one hundred] percent" not giving up his guns, and would not provide the police with the combination to his gun safe. The defendant then again attempted to enter his home. The officers told him to stop, but he quickened his pace toward the front door. One of the officers tackled the defendant to the ground and, after a struggle, placed him under arrest.

         The defendant disputed the officers' version of events. He testified that he told the police that he voluntarily would surrender his firearms, but, before doing so, he requested an opportunity to consult with his attorney to find out whether he had any legal recourse. The defendant was concerned that the police would mishandle his firearms, some of which were expensive or had sentimental value. The officers would not allow him to telephone his attorney, and entered his home without permission. The defendant followed them inside and demanded that they leave. At that point, he was tackled to the ground and placed under arrest.

         b. Prior proceedings.

         In December 2016, a criminal complaint issued from the District Court charging the defendant with failure to surrender firearms, G. L. c. 269, § 10 (i); being a disorderly person, G. L. c. 272, § 53; resisting arrest, G. L. c. 268, § 32B; and interference with a police officer. In March 2017, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss all charges due to a lack of probable cause. He argued that he had a right, pursuant to G. L. c. 140, § 129D, to maintain possession of his firearms pending an appeal from the suspension of his firearm license. A District Court judge denied the motion. In May 2017, the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence seized from his home on the ground that police unlawfully had entered without a warrant. A different District Court judge allowed the motion after an evidentiary hearing. The judge found that no exception to the warrant requirement authorized the police to enter the defendant's home, forcibly open his gun safe, and confiscate his firearms and ammunition. As a result of the suppression order, the Commonwealth dismissed the charge of failure to surrender a firearm.

         In September 2017, a two-day trial took place on the remaining charges of being a disorderly person, resisting arrest, and interference with a police officer. After the judge denied the defendant's motion for a required finding of not guilty, the jury convicted him of interference with a police officer and acquitted him of the other charges.

         The defendant appealed from the conviction. He argues that the judge erred in denying his motion to dismiss the charges because he was not required to surrender his firearms under G. L. c. 140, § 129D; the order immediately to surrender his firearms violated the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution; the evidence was insufficient to prove interference with a police officer; and the jury instructions "were woefully inadequate." We transferred the case from the Appeals Court on our own motion.

         2. Discussion.

         The defendant's appeal raises three issues.[2] First, is the crime with which he was charged recognized under Massachusetts common law?[3] Second, assuming that interference with a police officer is a common-law crime, what does it prohibit? Third, was the evidence, considered in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, sufficient to sustain the conviction?

         a. Whether interference with a police officer is an offense recognized under Massachusetts common law.

         When the Massachusetts Constitution was adopted in 1780, Part II, c. 6, art. 6, provided for the continuation of the common law by declaring that all of the laws "usually practised on in the courts of law" were carried into effect as a matter of State law until altered or repealed by the Legislature, or declared invalid by a court.[4] See Pinnick v. Cleary, 360 Mass. 1, 11 (1971) (art. 6 provides for continuation in Commonwealth of great body of common law); Crocker, 208 Mass. at 171 ("The general body of jurisprudence which had heretofore existed was thus preserved and continued"). The common law of the Commonwealth, "when it can be authentically established and sustained," is of "equal authority and binding force" to laws enacted by the Legislature. Commonwealth v. Chapman, 13 Met. 68, 70 (1847). See Sheehan, petitioner, 254 Mass. 342, 345 (1926) (definition of crimes "so far as not left to the common law" is province of Legislature).

         One need not look far to find common-law crimes recognized in the Commonwealth that continue with "equal authority and binding force" today. See Chapman, 13 Met. at 70. In cases of murder and manslaughter, G. L. c. 265, §§ 1 and 13, establish penalties, but "what acts shall constitute murder, what manslaughter, or what justifiable or excusable homicide, are left to be decided by the rules and principles of the common law."[5] Chapman, supra at 69. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Carter, 481 Mass. 352, 364 (2019); Commonwealth v. Brown, 477 Mass. 805, 822 (2017), cert, denied, 139 S.Ct. 54 (2018); Commonwealth v. Paulding, 438 Mass. 1, 8 (2002) .

         i. Origins.

         Massachusetts common law derives originally "either [from] the common law of England, or those English statutes passed before the emigration of our ancestors." Chapman, 13 Met. at 68. Thereafter, it was shaped by "usages, growing out of the peculiar situation and exigencies of the earlier settlers of Massachusetts, not traceable to any written statutes or ordinances, but adopted by general consent." Id. at 69. See Commonwealth v. Knowlton, 2 Mass. 530, 534-535 (1807) (Massachusetts common law was brought from England by "our ancestors," and was amended and altered by practice and usage).

         Our ability to trace the roots of a given common-law offense is hampered by a lack of regular reports of the early jurisprudence in the Commonwealth. Prior to adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution, "[t]he records of courts were very imperfectly kept, and afford but little information in regard to the rules of law discussed and adopted in them." Chapman, 54 Mass. at 70. See Commonwealth v. Churchill, 2 Met. 118, 124 (1840) ("Before the revolution, we had no regular reports of judicial decisions . . . and the most familiar rules and principles of law"). In 1839, commissioners appointed by the Legislature to report on the substance of Massachusetts common-law offenses observed, "As there are no regular reports of our jurisprudence further back than from a period of about twenty years after the adoption of the constitution, we have no direct contemporary evidence of the law so adopted . . . ." Preliminary Report of the Commissioners on Criminal Law, 1839 Senate Doc. No. 21, at 20 (1839 Preliminary Report).

         The absence of a reported appellate decision, however, does not remove a criminal offense from the common law. See Commonwealth v. Klein, 372 Mass. 823, 833 (1977) ("It is true that sometimes, even in a case of first impression, common law standards of criminality not previously defined are applied against a defendant"); Commonwealth v. Nee, 83 Mass.App.Ct. 441, 444-445 (2013) (absence of appellate decisions did not remove offense of "ancient provenance" from common law). We have rejected the narrow view that the common law could be regarded as adopted only if "it could be shown affirmatively that it had been adjudicated before the revolution."[6] See Churchill, 2 Met. at 124.

         ii. Other authoritative sources.

         As a result, we must look to other authoritative sources to ascertain the common law. The common law may be found in "usage and tradition, and the well known repositories of legal learning, [and] works of approved authority." Churchill, 2 Met. at 124. There is no doubt that these were the "great sources" of common law adopted by Part II, c. 6, art. 6, of the Massachusetts Constitution. Id. We also have held that the common law of Massachusetts is reflected in "records of courts of justice, well authenticated histories of trials, and books of reports, digests, and brief statements of such decisions, prepared by suitable ...


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