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Commonwealth v. Watt

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

August 20, 2019

Jermaine WATT.

         [129 N.E.3d 294] Rebecca A. Jacobstein, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for the defendant.

          David L. Sheppard-Brick, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.


          In 2010, Jermaine Watt pleaded guilty to two counts of distribution of cocaine. He was sentenced to concurrent State prison terms of from three to five years. In addition, he paid a drug analysis fee of $150, which was imposed pursuant to G. L. c. 280, § 6B. He filed a motion for a new trial, seeking to withdraw his guilty plea due to the misconduct of Sonja Farak, a chemist at the Department of Public Health’s State Laboratory Institute in Amherst who analyzed the substances seized in his case. See generally Committee for Public Counsel Servs. v. Attorney Gen., 480 Mass. 700, 108 N.E.3d 966 (2018). That motion was initially denied, but ultimately, after the defendant was released at the end of his sentence, the indictments were dismissed with prejudice on the Commonwealth’s motion. The defendant thereafter filed a motion seeking a refund of fees associated with the vacated convictions, namely, the drug analysis fee and certain fees incurred on the inmate account he was obligated to maintain while he was incarcerated. See G. L. c. 124, § 1 (u); 103 Code Mass. Regs. § 405.06 (2017).[1] A judge in the Superior [129 N.E.3d 295] Court denied the motion, and the defendant appeals. We allowed the Commonwealth’s application for direct appellate review.

          The Commonwealth concedes on appeal that the drug analysis fee should be refunded under the reasoning of our decision in Commonwealth v. Martinez, 480 Mass. 777, 109 N.E.3d 459 (2018), a case we decided after the judge denied the defendant’s

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 motion.[2] That is an appropriate concession, and, after an independent review of the issue, see Commonwealth v. Poirier, 458 Mass. 1014, 1015, 935 N.E.2d 1273 (2010), and cases cited, we agree that the same due process principles that underlie our decision in Martinez also require a refund of the drug analysis fee. The sole remaining issue before us, therefore, is whether the account fees should be refunded, either by statute or under the due process principles set forth in Martinez, supra, and Nelson v. Colorado, __ U.S. __, 137 S.Ct. 1249, 197 L.Ed.2d 611 (2017).[3] As we shall explain, neither the statute nor due process requires that those fees be refunded.


          In ruling on the defendant’s motion, the judge did not make findings of fact. We glean the following facts from the record before us and from the parties’ representations. While he was incarcerated, the defendant was required to have an inmate account for retention of his funds. See 103 Code Mass. Regs. § 405.06(1). Pursuant to G. L. c. 124, § 1 (u), and 103 Code Mass. Regs. § 405.06(2), a monthly maintenance and administration fee of one dollar was assessed on his account in each month in which certain types of transactions occurred. The Commonwealth represents that such fees are charged when correction personnel are needed to process a transaction, such as when a visitor brings money to be deposited in an inmate’s account, but not when a transaction occurs [129 N.E.3d 296] without the need for such processing, such as when an inmate earns money from prison employment or when an inmate’s family member makes a direct deposit using the secure deposit system. The defendant does not generally dispute this, but represents that on two occasions, a fee was incurred when he was transferred from the house of correction to the State prison, a circumstance beyond his control. According to the defendant, the fees totaled thirty-two dollars over the term of his incarceration.[4]


          The defendant argues that the account fees must be refunded under G. L. c. 278, § 14, which provides:

"No prisoner or person under recognizance, acquitted by verdict or discharged because no indictment has been found against him, or for want of prosecution, shall be liable for any costs or fees or for any charge for subsistence while he was in custody."

         By its terms, the statute applies to three categories of people: those who are "acquitted by verdict," those who are "discharged because no indictment has been found," and those who are "discharged ... for want of prosecution." Each category consists of individuals in pretrial status who are eventually released without having been found guilty of any offense. The statute does not apply to those who, like the defendant here, were convicted of one or more offenses. We specifically reject the defendant’s assertion that he is in the third category ("discharged ... for want of prosecution") merely because the indictments were ultimately dismissed on the Commonwealth’s motion. The Commonwealth did

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in fact prosecute him, he pleaded guilty, and the account fees were incurred while he served his term. As the defendant was not in pretrial status when the fees were incurred, G. ...

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