Commonwealth v. Rossetti

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Docket NumberSJC-13036
Decision Date05 May 2022



No. SJC-13036

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

May 5, 2022

Heard: September 8, 2021

Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on December 6, 2017.

Pleas of guilty were accepted by Joshua I. Wall, J., and questions of law were reported by him to the Appeals Court.

The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

Joseph N. Schneiderman for the defendant.

Howard P. Blatchford, Jr., Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Joshua M. Daniels, Reyna Ramirez, & Christine Sunnerberg, for Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

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


This case requires us to determine whether G. L. c. 6, § 178H (a) (2) (§ 178H [a] [2]), permits an


individual convicted of failure to register as a sex offender, subsequent offense, to be sentenced to a term of incarceration in State prison of less than five years. We hold that it does not.


We briefly recite the undisputed facts. Following a 2008 rape conviction, the defendant, Andrew Rossetti, was required to register as a sex offender. Since that time, the defendant already had been twice convicted of failure to register as a sex offender in two unrelated actions when, in 2017, a grand jury indicted him on two counts of failure to register as a sex offender, subsequent offense, under § 178H (a.) (2) -[1] In 2019, the defendant pleaded guilty on both counts and the subsequent offense enhancements. On count 1, the judge imposed a sentence of two years of probation, with the condition that the defendant comply with sex offender registration requirements. On count 2, the judge announced that he intended to sentence the defendant "to one to two years in


the state prison," but that he was staying the sentence pending his report of the questions now before this court. With the consent of the parties, the judge then reported the following two questions to the Appeals Court, pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 34, as amended, 442 Mass. 1501 (2004), and Mass. R. A. P. 5, as appearing in 481 Mass. 1608 (2019):

"1. Whether G. L. c. 6, [§ 178H (a) (2), ] permits a state prison sentence for a period of less than five years
"2. Whether the court's proposed sentence of one to two years committed to state prison is lawful under G. L. c. 6, [§ 178H (a) (2) ] ."

We subsequently granted the defendant's application for direct appellate review. Based on the plain language of the statute, we answer both reported questions, "No."


1. Minimum terms and mandatory minimum sentences.

The parties' reliance on this court's varied opinions related to criminal sentencing has revealed that, over the years, our sentencing jurisprudence has become less than clear.[2] Thus, we must make plain the meaning of certain language


in our sentencing jurisprudence before turning to the reported questions.[3]

The parties' citations to, among others, Commonwealth v. Montarvo, 486 Mass. 535 (2020); Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 482 Mass. 366 (2019); Commonwealth v. Wimer, 480 Mass. 1 (2018); Doe, Sex Offender Registry Bd. No. 380316 v. Sex Offender Registry Bd., 473 Mass. 297 (2015); Commonwealth v. Zapata, 455 Mass. 530 (2009); Commonwealth v. Hines, 449 Mass. 183 (2007); Commonwealth v. Brown, 431 Mass. 772 (2000); Commonwealth v. Claudio, 418 Mass. 103 (1994), overruled on other grounds by Commonwealth v. Britt, 465 Mass. 87 (2013); and Commonwealth v. Lightfoot, 391 Mass. 718 (1984), have revealed specifically that this court has not been as precise as is necessary in its use of the phrases "mandatory minimum sentence" and "minimum term." It also is clear from the parties' briefs that there is no clear understanding of where a minimum term ends and a mandatory minimum sentence begins.

The questions reported to this court surround whether the sentencing judge is bound by the minimum term presented in


§ 178H (a.) (2) . The defendant argues that the statute does not create a "mandatory minimum sentence," whereas the Commonwealth argues that the statute imposes a "minimum term." Because this court's "[i]nherent powers" include "among other things, those 'whose exercise is essential to . . . [the court's] capacity to decide cases, '" Commonwealth v. Teixeira, 475 Mass. 482, 490 (2016), quoting Brach v. Chief Justice of the Dist. Court Dep't, 386 Mass. 528, 535 (1982), and because this court possesses the "inherent authority to interpret the law," Sullivan v. Chief Justice for Admin. & Mgt. of the Trial Court, 448 Mass. 15, 24 (2006), we take this opportunity to delineate the differences between a "minimum term" and a "mandatory minimum term of imprisonment" or "mandatory minimum sentence"[4] in order to guide


our decision-making in this case and ensure that the lower courts have coherent principles to guide decisions related to sentencing, see Commonwealth v. Preston P., 483 Mass. 759, 762 (2020) (recognizing confusion created by past jurisprudence and taking opportunity to delineate distinction between "pretrial probation" and "pretrial conditions of release" before answering reported questions); Commonwealth v. Martinez, 480 Mass. 777, 783 (2018) (reformulating reported questions to "provid[e] clear and simple guidance to trial courts and litigants"). See also Commonwealth v. Claudio, 484 Mass. 203, 205 (2020) (broadening reported question).

"As with all matters of statutory construction, our goal in construing [a] . . . statute is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the Legislature." Commonwealth v. Newberry, 483 Mass. 186, 192 (2019), citing Commonwealth v. Curran, 478 Mass. 630, 633 (2018). "[T]he language of the statute ... is 'the principal source of insight' into the intent of the


Legislature." Newberry, supra, quoting Sisson v. Lhowe, 460 Mass. 705, 708 (2011). Therefore, "we start 'with the language of the statute itself and presume, as we must, that the Legislature intended what the words of the statute say'" (quotation omitted). Commonwealth v. Williamson, 462 Mass. 676, 679 (2012), quoting Commonwealth v. Young, 453 Mass. 707, 713 (2009). "[S]tatutory language should be given effect consistent with its plain meaning and in light of the aim of the Legislature unless to do so would achieve an illogical result." Randolph v. Commonwealth, 488 Mass. 1, 5 (2021), quoting Commonwealth v. Wassilie, 482 Mass. 562, 573 (2019). See G. L. c. 4, § 6, Third ("Words and phrases shall be construed according to the common and approved usage of the language"). When necessary, "[w]e derive the words' usual and accepted meaning from sources presumably known to the statute's enactors, such as their use in other legal contexts and dictionary definitions." Commonwealth v. Vigiani, 488 Mass. 34, 36 (2021), quoting Montarvo, 486 Mass. at 536. See G. L. c. 4, § 6, Third. "Where the language of a statute is clear, [however, ] courts must give effect to its plain and ordinary meaning and . . . need not look beyond the words of the statute itself." Commonwealth v. Mendes, 457 Mass. 805, 810-811 (2010), quoting Massachusetts Broken Stone Co. v. Weston, 430 Mass. 637, 640 (2000) .


We reaffirm the long-held principle of statutory interpretation that we interpret a statute to effectuate the Legislature's intent, looking at words' "plain meaning" in light of "sources presumably known to the statute's enactors, such as their use in other legal contexts and dictionary definitions," and we further note that legal terms must be defined with precision. Randolph, 488 Mass. at 5, quoting Wassilie, 482 Mass. at 573. Vigiani, 488 Mass. at 36, quoting Montarvo, 486 Mass. at 536.

We previously have not distinguished clearly between the terms "minimum term" and "mandatory minimum" sentence, [5] although, for the reasons discussed infra, it is clear that the Legislature conceives of the two concepts as separate and distinct. The terms must be distinguished, then, if we are to give meaning to the varied language the Legislature has employed in our sentencing statutes and effectuate legislative intent to


develop minimum terms and mandatory minimum sentences as distinct sentencing concepts.

a. Minimum term.

This court understands that when the Legislature prescribes in an offense-specific statute that a defendant shall be incarcerated for "not less than" a certain number of years, such language generally defines the "minimum term" permitted under the statute, according to the plain meaning of such phrase. "Minimum" is defined as "[o]f, relating to, or constituting the smallest acceptable or possible quantity in a given case." Black's Law Dictionary 1192 (11th ed. 2019). "Term," as relevant here, is defined as a "fixed period of time." Id. at 1773. Thus, a minimum term as defined in an offense-specific sentencing statute generally refers to the shortest length of time to which a judge may sentence a defendant if the judge chooses to impose a sentence of incarceration.[6] In other words, if a judge sentences a defendant to a term of incarceration, the judge has no discretion to


sentence the defendant to less than the minimum term provided by the Legislature.[7] See, e.g., Brown, 431 Mass. at 779 ("not less than" number in offense-specific statute "is always the shortest sentence that can be imposed").


When sentencing a defendant to a term of incarceration in State prison, the judge must impose a sentence under the offense-specific statute and any relevant mandate of G. L. c. 279, § 24 (§ 24). With certain exceptions, § 24 mandates that an indeterminate sentence must be imposed when sentencing a defendant to incarceration in State prison.[8] Id. Specifically as used in § 24, "minimum term" refers to the length of time imposed as the lower end of a sentence...

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