Commonwealth v. Escobar

Citation490 Mass. 488,191 N.E.3d 1052
Decision Date12 August 2022
Docket NumberSJC-13252
Parties COMMONWEALTH v. Roland F. ESCOBAR, Jr.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Mary Lee, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Patrick Levin, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for the defendant.

Present: Budd, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, Cypher, Kafker, Wendlandt, & Georges, JJ.


While driving in Taunton, the defendant struck multiple parked and moving vehicles and a pedestrian, who died as a result of the collision. The Commonwealth charged the defendant with a number of offenses relating to the incident, including manslaughter and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury. On the basis of these two offenses, the Commonwealth moved for pretrial detention pursuant to G. L. c. 276, § 58A, the dangerousness statute.

The dangerousness statute permits the Commonwealth to hold a criminal defendant without bail pending trial where the defendant is charged with any one among an enumerated list of predicate offenses set forth in G. L. c. 276, § 58A (1). Included in this list is any "felony offense that has as an element of the offense the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force against the person of another." Id. At issue in this case is whether this so-called "force clause" includes the crimes of manslaughter and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury. The defendant argues that it does not, because the force clause does not extend to crimes that can be committed recklessly or wantonly. The Commonwealth maintains that offenses resulting in death or serious bodily injury necessarily require the use of physical force against another person, but contends, in the alternative, that if we do interpret the force clause to exclude reckless or wanton conduct, we could adopt a "modified categorical approach" in analyzing whether a crime is a predicate offense under the force clause. Under this approach, a court considers the facts of each case individually rather than considering the statutory elements of the offense. The Commonwealth contends that, employing this approach, the facts here show that the defendant intentionally used physical force against others.

We conclude that a crime that may be committed with a mens rea of recklessness does not fall within the ambit of the force clause in G. L. c. 276, § 58A (1). Nor do we accept the Commonwealth's suggestion that we adopt a modified categorical approach to the force clause in the context of pretrial detention. Applying our well-established categorical approach, we conclude that, because both offenses may be committed recklessly, manslaughter and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon (a motor vehicle) causing serious bodily injury are not predicate offenses under the force clause of G. L. c. 276, § 58A (1).

1. Background. We recite the facts based on the evidence proffered at the hearings on the defendant's petition for bail review. On August 3, 2021, the defendant was driving a sport utility vehicle (SUV) on Main Street in Taunton. After his SUV collided with the rear of a moving vehicle, the defendant side-swiped multiple parked vehicles on the right-hand side of the road. He continued driving, traveling in a lane that ordinarily was reserved for parking. A pedestrian who was walking toward the driver's side of her parked vehicle was struck by the front of the SUV. Following these collisions, the defendant continued driving along Main Street, collided with the passenger's side of a pick-up truck, and turned right onto Summer Street. There, the defendant's SUV rear-ended another moving vehicle, causing the SUV to roll onto its side and strike a number of other vehicles before coming to a stop. In total, approximately twelve vehicles were involved in these collisions. The pedestrian who had been hit suffered serious injuries to her head

and internal organs. She was taken to a hospital, where she died shortly thereafter.

When police arrived at the scene, they found the defendant unconscious in the SUV. They determined that the SUV was registered to the defendant. After observing signs that he had suffered an opiate overdose

, first responders treated the defendant with nalaxone and transported him to a hospital in Brockton. Once the defendant regained consciousness, he was given the Miranda warnings and agreed to speak with a State police trooper in the emergency room. The defendant told the trooper that he had been cut off by another vehicle and "blacked out," and then woke up later inside an ambulance. The defendant also said that, before the crash, he had consumed two shots of whiskey and two or three different prescription drugs, at least one opiate and one anticonvulsant (that he had not been prescribed). After the interview, the defendant was arrested.

On August 4, 2021, the defendant was arraigned in the District Court. He was charged with manslaughter, G. L. c. 265, § 13 ; assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury, G. L. c. 265, § 15A (c ) (i) ; misdemeanor and felony motor vehicle homicide by means of operating while under the influence of drugs and negligent operation, G. L. c. 90, § 24G (a ), (b ) ; operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs, second offense, G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (a ) (1) ; leaving the scene of personal injury with death resulting, G. L. c. 90, § 24 (2) (a 1/2) (2); leaving the scene of property damage, G. L. c. 90, § 24 (2) (a ) ; and operation of an uninsured motor vehicle, G. L. c. 90, § 34J. The prosecutor moved for pretrial detention pursuant to G. L. c. 276, § 58A, on the ground that the crimes of manslaughter and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury are predicate offenses under the force clause.

Following a hearing, a District Court judge allowed the motion for pretrial detention and ordered the defendant held without bail. The defendant then filed a petition for bail review in the Superior Court; he argued that the offenses of manslaughter and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury are not predicate offenses under the force clause of G. L. c. 276, § 58A. A Superior Court judge held two hearings on the petition; the judge thereafter allowed the petition and ordered the defendant released on $10,000 bail with conditions. Seeking to vacate the order allowing bail, the Commonwealth sought extraordinary relief in the county court pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3, seeking to have the order allowing bail vacated. Citing the emergency COVID-19 orders by this court regarding transfers of bail cases, the single justice granted the Commonwealth leave to bring an interlocutory appeal in the Appeals Court from the order allowing the defendant's petition for bail review. We then transferred the case from the Appeals Court on our own motion.1

2. Statutory scheme. The dangerousness statute, G. L. c. 276, § 58A, sets forth "a comprehensive scheme of measures available with respect to arrested persons charged with crime." Mendonza v. Commonwealth, 423 Mass. 771, 774, 673 N.E.2d 22 (1996). "Among the measures described in [ G. L. c. 276, § 58A,] is pretrial detention." Commonwealth v. Young, 453 Mass. 707, 709, 905 N.E.2d 90 (2009). The purpose of the statute is "systematically to identify those who may present a danger to society and to incapacitate them before that danger may be realized" (citation omitted). Scione v. Commonwealth, 481 Mass. 225, 226, 114 N.E.3d 74 (2019).

The ability to detain an individual who has not been convicted pending trial is subject to crucial constitutional limits. "[I]n our society liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception." Brangan v. Commonwealth, 477 Mass. 691, 704, 80 N.E.3d 949, S.C., 478 Mass. 361, 84 N.E.3d 1269 (2017), quoting Aime v. Commonwealth, 414 Mass. 667, 677, 611 N.E.2d 204 (1993). "Prior to conviction, a criminal defendant is presumed not to have committed the crimes charged." Commonwealth v. Vieira, 483 Mass. 417, 420, 133 N.E.3d 296 (2019). Thus, "[p]retrial detention is a measure of last resort." Id. "The practice of pretrial detention on the basis of dangerousness has been upheld as constitutional in part because the Legislature ‘carefully limit[ed] the circumstances under which detention may be sought to the most serious of crimes,’ e.g., a ‘specific category of extremely serious offenses.’ " Id. at 421, 133 N.E.3d 296, quoting United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 747, 750, 107 S.Ct. 2095, 95 L.Ed.2d 697 (1987).

When the Commonwealth seeks the pretrial detention of a defendant under G. L. c. 276, § 58A, the "threshold question in every case is whether the defendant has committed a predicate offense." Young, 453 Mass. at 711, 905 N.E.2d 90. As discussed, these offenses are enumerated in G. L. c. 276, § 58A (1), beginning with the force clause,2 and continuing with an extensive list of specific violent offenses.3 If a defendant has been charged with a predicate offense, the Commonwealth may move, on that basis, for pretrial detention under G. L. c. 276, § 58A. A hearing on the motion must be held on the defendant's first appearance before the court or, if the Commonwealth seeks a continuance, within three business days. G. L. c. 276, § 58A (4). At that hearing, the Commonwealth must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is dangerous and, if so, that no conditions of release reasonably would assure the safety of any other person or the community. See G. L. c. 276, § 58A (3) ; Mendonza, 423 Mass. at 788-789, 673 N.E.2d 22.

3. Discussion. It is undisputed that the offenses of manslaughter and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury are not specifically enumerated predicate offenses in G. L. c. 276, § 58A (1). The Commonwealth...

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  • Commonwealth v. Labbe
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • 3 Marzo 2023
    ...the defendant intentionally or recklessly used the item in a manner capable of causing serious bodily harm. See Commonwealth v. Escobar, 490 Mass. 488, 499-500 (2022); Commonwealth v. Sexton, 425 Mass. 146, 151 (1997). Put plainly, there was no evidence that the defendant intentionally used......

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