Commonwealth v. Boucher

Decision Date17 December 2002
Citation780 NE 2d 47,438 Mass. 274
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH v. STEVEN BOUCHER
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Present: MARSHALL, C.J., GREANEY, SPINA, COWIN, SOSMAN, & CORDY, JJ.

Robert C. Thompson, Assistant District Attorney (Katherine E. McMahon, Assistant District Attorney, with him) for the Commonwealth.

Peter M. Onek, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for the defendant.

CORDY, J.

In this case we must decide the meaning of the word "likely" as the Legislature used it in the context of defining a sexually dangerous person as someone "likely to engage in sexual offenses if not confined to a secure facility" pursuant to G. L. c. 123A, § 1.

Background. In December, 1987, Steven Boucher pleaded guilty to three counts of rape of a child with force and three counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of fourteen years. He was given three sentences of from twelve to fifteen years and three sentences of from eight to ten years, all to be served concurrently. Shortly before Boucher was to complete his sentences and be released from custody, the Commonwealth filed a petition for his commitment as a sexually dangerous person pursuant to G. L. c. 123A, §§ 1, 12, contending that he met the statutory requirements of a "person who has been ... convicted ... of a sexual offense and who suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes the person likely to engage in sexual offenses if not confined to a secure facility" (emphasis added). G. L. c. 123A, § 1.

Following a two-day jury-waived trial in the Superior Court, the trial judge found beyond a reasonable doubt that Boucher (1) had been convicted of a sexual offense; (2) suffered from a "mental abnormality" (pedophilia) as a result of which he had serious difficulty in controlling his behavior; and (3) was predisposed "to committing sexual offenses to such an extent that there is a significant risk of his committing another sexual offense." The judge further found that the risk of Boucher's committing additional sexual offenses was sufficient "to make [him] a menace to the safety of others." The judge dismissed the petition, however, because he concluded that the Commonwealth had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Boucher was "likely" to commit new sexual offenses unless confined to a secure facility. He based this conclusion on his interpretation of the term "likely" in the statute to mean "more likely than not," or, stated otherwise, that the Commonwealth had the burden of proving that the risk of Boucher committing an additional sexual offense was "at least fifty percent" (emphasis in original). The Commonwealth appealed, and the dismissal was stayed by a single justice of the Appeals Court pending the outcome of the appeal. We granted the defendant's application for direct appellate review.1

Discussion. With respect to the weighing and crediting of testimony admitted at trial, we will not substitute our judgment for that of the trier of fact. Hill, petitioner, 422 Mass. 147, 156 (1996). We do, however, scrutinize without deference the propriety of the legal criteria employed by the trial judge and the manner in which those criteria were applied to the facts. Id. In this case, the judge required the Commonwealth to prove that Boucher was "more likely than not" to commit a sexual offense as the result of his mental abnormality when the plain language of the statute required only that Boucher be "likely" to commit such an offense. Because we conclude that these terms have different meanings, the judge erred by applying the wrong legal criteria.

"Likely" is not defined in G. L. c. 123A, nor is it understood to be a term of art requiring a specific and limited interpretation. Where a statutory term is undefined, it must be understood in accordance with its generally accepted plain meaning. Commonwealth v. Brown, 431 Mass. 772, 775 (2000). Commonwealth v. Campbell, 415 Mass. 697, 700 (1993). Dictionaries define "likely" as "seeming as if it would happen," "reasonably to be expected," "apparently destined," and "of such a nature or so circumstanced as to make something probable." Webster's New World Dictionary 891 (2d ed. 1970). Webster's Third New Int'l Dictionary 1310 (1993). As commonly used and understood, "likely" is a word that encompasses a range of probabilities depending on the specific context in which it is used. We conclude that something is "likely" if it is reasonably to be expected in the context of the particular facts and circumstances at hand.

In assessing the risk of reoffending, it is for the fact finder to determine what is "likely." Such a determination must be made on a case-by-case basis, by analyzing a number of factors, including the seriousness of the threatened harm, the relative certainty of the anticipated harm, and the possibility of successful intervention to prevent that harm. See, e.g., Cross v. Harris, 418 F.2d 1095, 1100-1101 (D.C. Cir. 1969) ("It may well be impossible to provide a precise definition of `likely' as the term is used in the [D.C. sexual psychopath] statute. The degree of likelihood necessary to support commitment may depend on many factors"). While "likely" indicates more than a mere propensity or possibility, it is not bound to the statistical probability inherent in a definition such as "more likely than not," and the terms are not interchangeable. To conclude that "likely" amounts to a quantifiable probability, absent a more specific statutory expression of such a quantity, is to require mathematical precision from a term that, by its plain meaning, demands contextual, not statistical, analysis.2

"More likely than not" is most familiar as a standard of proof equivalent to fifty per cent plus one. As used in the statute, however, the term "likely" is not intended as a standard or burden of proof. Rather, it is descriptive of one characteristic ("likely to engage in sexual offenses") of a sexually dangerous person. While the Commonwealth is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person is sexually dangerous, that is, has all the characteristics of such a person as defined in G. L. c. 123A, § 1, it is not required to prove to any particular mathematical quantum the likelihood of his committing another sexual offense.

In analogous circumstances, the United States Supreme Court reached a similar result regarding the constitutional requirements of the Kansas Sexually Violent Predator Act. In Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997), the Court held that commitment as a sexually dangerous person is only appropriate where, among other prerequisites, a person is shown to "suffer from a volitional impairment rendering [him] dangerous beyond [his] control." Id. at 358. In Kansas v. Crane, 534 U.S. 407 (2002), the Court addressed the issue of what degree of "inability to control" one's behavior the government was required to establish in order to prove this necessary characteristic. Id. at 413. It held that the inability to control behavior need not be demonstrated with mathematical precision, and that "[i]t is enough to say that there must be proof of serious difficulty in controlling behavior." Id. The Court further concluded that the adequacy of this proof must be viewed in the context of the features of the case (e.g., the nature and seriousness of the abnormality) and, most importantly, when so viewed it "must be sufficient to distinguish the dangerous sexual offender whose... mental illness [or] abnormality ... subjects him to civil commitment from the dangerous but typical recidivist convicted in an ordinary criminal case." Id. There is little question that, in the circumstances of our statute, proof that a person is likely to commit another sexual offense need not be established to a mathematical certainty above fifty per cent in order to distinguish the dangerous sexual offender from "the dangerous but typical recidivist convicted in an ordinary criminal case."3

In addition, there is nothing in the statute or its history to suggest that the Legislature intended that "likely" be interpreted to mean "more likely than not." As a matter of legislative intent, such an interpretation would be incongruous given the unmitigated use of the word "likely" in the statute. If the Legislature had intended to restrict "likely" to a usage less broad than its commonly understood meaning, the Legislature would have done so. For example, G. L. c. 123, § 7, provides that "the superintendent of a [mental health] facility may petition the district court ... for the commitment ... and retention of any patient ... whom said superintendent determines that the failure to hospitalize would create a likelihood of serious harm by reason of mental illness" (emphasis added). Despite the similarity in tenor and effect between G. L. c. 123 and G. L. c. 123A, there is a stark contrast — G. L. c. 123 provides a specific statutory definition of "[l]ikelihood of serious harm" that varies from a "substantial risk" to a "very substantial risk" depending on the nature of the perceived harm.4 In other statutes, as well, the Legislature has qualified the generally understood broad scope of "likely" by including limiting language. See, e.g., G. L. c. 21E, § 2 (requiring "substantial likelihood" of release of oil or hazardous materials to establish a "[t]hreat of release"); G. L. c. 71B, § 3 (allowing student to be removed from school if school committee shows that student's behavior poses "substantial likelihood of injury to himself or others"); G. L. c. 209A, § 4 (allowing courts to issue temporary relief orders in domestic abuse cases where "plaintiff demonstrates a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse").

By contrast, G. L. c. 123A, § 1, only requires a determination that a person is "likely to engage in sexual offenses." The lack of restrictive language around "likely" in c. 123A, § 1, indicates the legislative intent to...

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