Posts Categorized: Forensics

Year in Review: BBA Comments

As you have likely gathered if you’re a regular reader of this blog, the BBA had a remarkably productive year on the policy front.  We’ve recently been touting the work of our Amicus Committee, and look forward to following up with you about a couple of cases with oral argument either recently heard (Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin II in the US Supreme Court on December 9) or fast approaching  (Commonwealth v. Wade in the SJC on January 11).  However, this post is devoted to our Sections and all the comments they submitted to various court working groups and committees in 2015.

For those of you unfamiliar with this process, the courts at any time have various working groups and standing committees considering changes to various rules of practice and procedure.  When these groups compose a draft rule, they generally post the proposed revisions online and invite comment from interested parties.  We know from experience that they appreciate our efforts to gather practitioners’ opinions and take them very seriously, so the BBA works with all its Sections to solicit and facilitate their comments and sends them to the courts on behalf of the Sections.

It is important to note that the BBA itself often does not take a position in these instances.  The comment process is an opportunity for members of the bar to be heard and we want to make sure that the court can benefit from all the differing points of view on an issue.  Therefore, although each submission is approved by the BBA Council, informal Section comments do not receive as thorough a vetting as full BBA policy positions, because they do not require a general consensus of the bar or continued BBA advocacy.

Here are some of this year’s highlights:

  1. That an amended jury instruction is appropriate and the provisional instruction generally assists jurors in considering eyewitness identification issues
  2. That the proposed instruction is appropriately based on five generally accepted principles regarding eyewitness identification

Their comments also included a number of items on which there was no consensus, ranging from broad policy issues to specific language suggestions.

In November, the SJC released its new jury instruction on eyewitness evidence, which will be given “upon request of a party, before opening statement or immediately before or after the testimony of an identifying witness.”  The Justices noted that the instruction will need to evolve with new developments in the science of identification and requested that the Standing Committee on Eyewitness Identification continue to review the issue and recommend further changes as needed.  Here is the full statement from the court.

  • The BBA’s Ethics Committee, Delivery of Legal Services, and Litigation Sections also provided extensive comments on the proposed revised Code of Judicial Conduct.  The BBA itself provided comments as well, noting its support of Rule 3.7, encouraging judges to participate in legal, educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, or civic organizations, and Rule 2.6(A), giving judges guidance on their role in assisting self-represented litigants.  The Delivery of Legal Services Section also voiced support for Rule 2.6(A).  The Ethics Committee provided extensive comments on many of the rules — which the Litigation Section generally agreed with, adding a note that they hoped the expansion of judges’ ability to accept free or discounted legal services would result in a corresponding expansion of the public reporting requirement.

In September, the BBA also voiced its support for proposed amendments to SJC Rule 3:11, which provides a new role for the SJC in reviewing these judicial ethics issues.  The rule would give the SJC the new power to both issue Ethics Advisory opinions to clarify the meaning and application of and provision of the CJC and to expound upon provisions of the Code that are of broad interest and application.  It gives the SJC power to essentially serve as an appellate body for decisions by the Committee on Judicial Ethics (CJE), and extends the ability to request Ethics Advisories to any judge or lawyer, whereas only judges can request CJE opinions.

In late October, the SJC released the revised Code of Judicial Conduct and reported the adoption of the revised SJC Rule 3:11.  The code and rule will take effect January 1, 2016.  We were pleased to see that many of the Ethics Committee’s comments incorporated into the Code and the sections we supported were included without substantive changes.

The BBA’s Real Estate and Bankruptcy Law Sections both provided comments to the Trial Court.  The Real Estate Law Section was satisfied with the standing order as an appropriate measure to address unnecessary confusion in the litigation process.  The Bankruptcy Law Section was concerned that the proposed standing order did not provide a good-faith exception.  They discussed possible situations when it would be more beneficial to bypass the address verification process in order to expedite the matter and provided the Trial Court with a couple of possible language edits to achieve this goal, one for a show of cause and the other based on time.

The Trial Court approved the standing order in late June 2015, and it became effective October 1st.  The final version does not incorporate the changes proposed by the Bankruptcy Law Section.

  • In July, the Litigation and Real Estate Sections commented on the proposed BMC and District Court procedural amount change. The shift would increase the minimum qualifying amount for Superior Court cases from $25,000 to $50,000, an increase that roughly corresponds with inflation since the qualifying amount was last changed in 1986.  Both Sections were concerned about the implications of the change, especially with how the District Court and BMC could handle the attendant influx of additional civil cases.  They also considered alternative types of jurisdictional splits, based possibly on case complexity or subject matter.

Perhaps in response to these comments, the Court has put this issue on hold as it works out how best to implement this change.  As the Chief Justice explained in his State of the Judiciary address, “We have heard loud and clear the comments furnished by the MBA and BBA when we aired the proposal to increase the procedural limit in civil cases in the District Court and BMC from $25,000 to $50,000 … [O]nce [dedicated civil] sessions are up and running, and have demonstrated that they can efficiently handle these civil cases, then we will reopen the idea of increasing the procedural limit to $50,000.”

The BBA noted its support for the change, and expressed its hope that all involved personnel would be adequately trained and that the rules would be uniformly enforced by all DOC facilities.  The BBA also encouraged EOPSS to consider extending application of the rule to county correctional facilities as well to assure uniform proper treatment of attorneys at all correctional institutions.  The Criminal Law Section was also largely supportive, individual members shared some concerns, such as with the revised rules’ record-keeping requirements and the potential limits it would place on correction officers.

Shortly after sending our comments, we attended a hearing on the revised CMR, where individuals and organizations were given the opportunity to publicly voice some of their own concerns before a panel of EOPSS and DOC representatives.  Like the BBA’s comments, most groups were generally supportive, but also raised concerns.  Read more about the hearing here.

  • In September, our Criminal Law, Delivery of Legal Services, and Family Law Sections all commented on the proposed revised SJC Rule 1:24, which addresses personal identifying information in certain court filings and documents. The SJC Standing Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil and Appellate Procedure drafted the new rule based on the nonbinding Supreme Judicial Court Interim Guidelines for the Protection of Personal Identifying Data in Publicly Accessible Court Documents that took effect in 2009.  The proposed new rule would apply in the trial and appellate courts and would govern documents filed in civil and criminal cases as well as documents issued by the courts.  It differed from the Interim Guidelines most significantly by authorizing a judge to impose sanctions for non-compliance.

The Comments are generally supportive of the revisions, though they express some concerns about the addition of sanctions and their potential impacts on criminal law.  In addition, consideration of these proposed amendments prompted a second round of discussions on the larger issue of online access to court records.  We anticipate the opportunity to comment on a forthcoming rule on this issue, and are eager to take part in the debate.

While the Ethics Committee was generally supportive of the change, their comments expressed some concern about the removal of the local-counsel piece.  Though the Massachusetts rule and notice to comment explanation seem concerned only with protection of the company using foreign counsel, the Ethics Committee noted that other parties to litigation as well as the courts could benefit from the requirement for consultation with local counsel.

  • This month, we are working on finalizing comments on proposed revisions to the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure (MRCP), Rules 26(b) and 1. The revisions largely track those recently adopted in the federal rules of civil procedure to include reference to proportionality in discovery.  The goal appears to be streamlining discovery and assuring that costs are kept in proportion to the overall case.  Though our comments are not quite finalized, a sneak peak at their content reveals that though many practitioners feel that the changes are minor in nature and a number were supportive, others had concerns that they could result in increased discovery motions, thus having the opposite of their intended effect.

This conclusion was similar to the implications shared at our recent program on the changes to the federal rules.  The presentation materials from this program provide some more insight on the origins and development of this proportionality language.

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The presenters, BBA Council member Chris Morrison, Jones Day, Gregory Bombard, Duane Morris, James Berriman, Evidox, and Paula Bagger, Cooke Clancy & Gruenthal, LLP, seemed in agreement that while the changes to federal discovery Rule 26 could have some implications for practice, revisions to other sections would likely have larger implications.

Thanks to all the Sections and Committees for your work on these comments.  We will continue wrapping up the comments on MRCP Rules 26(b) and 1 and will keep you informed on how these and other feedback are incorporated by the Courts into their rules.  We look forward to continuing to be part of these sorts of discussions in the future and thank the courts and agencies for making this a thorough and inclusive process.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Sentences on Sentences: Reform and Dookhan Update

It was a week for sentencing discussions at the BBA.  First, an update on the Dookhan drug lab scandal, an issue we’ve spoken on a number of times (see past posts: Drug Lab Crisis Points to Larger Issues in the Criminal Justice System, Getting it Right: A Bargain at Any Price, Catching Up: Have  You Heard?), especially through the work of our Drug Lab Crisis Task Force.  The Task Force examined the facts regarding the lab crisis and related matters and released their report in early 2014, just months after chemist Annie Dookhan pled guilty to 27 counts of misleading investigators, filing false reports, and tampering with evidence for her deliberate mishandling of evidence in the Hinton drug lab.

Our Task Force made three recommendations:

  • Prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, and policy makers should continue the extraordinary joint efforts that were mounted in the aftermath of the Dookhan misconduct to promptly resolve open criminal cases related to Dookhan’s misconduct.
  • The Commonwealth needs to further enhance the auditing and oversight of drug labs and consider similar steps regarding all forensic services.
  • The Governor and Legislature ought to review funding levels for forensic services to ensure that these services are adequately funded and staffed and that effective auditing and oversight is maintained.

On Monday, in keeping with our report’s first recommendation above, the SJC held in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District that individuals who pled guilty in cases with evidence that was affected by the Dookhan scandal cannot be charged with a more serious offense, nor can they receive a harsher sentence than they were originally given, if they are granted a new trial.  According to the Globe, the holding was celebrated by the defense bar and civil libertarians, but was a source of concern for prosecutors, as “ ‘convicted defendants now have nothing to lose by withdrawing their evidence-based admissions of guilt.’ ” We will continue to monitor developments related to this situation and ongoing litigation.

Shortly after learning of this decision, we were pleased to welcome Chief Judge Patti Saris of the U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts to our Council meeting.  Having previously worked for U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, and as a Magistrate and Massachusetts Superior Court Judge before her nomination to U.S. District Court, Judge Saris spoke with a wealth of knowledge about sentencing issues from both legislative and judicial perspectives and with state and federal experience.

In addition, she chairs the U.S. Sentencing Commission (“Commission”), an independent agency in the federal judicial branch established in 1984 and tasked with establishing sentencing guidelines and practices for federal courts, advising and assisting Congress and the executive branch in developing effective and efficient criminal policy, and collecting, analyzing, researching, and disseminating a broad array of information on crime and sentencing issues to all branches of government, academia, and the general public.  It is bipartisan by design in order to consider all viewpoints and to effectively gain buy-in from all legislators.

The Commission was a driving force behind the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which made a number of reforms to federal sentences for drug offenses, most notably reducing the disparity between sentences involving crack versus those involving powder cocaine.  When preparing this bill, the Commission examined mandatory minimum sentences and found that they were mostly affecting small-time criminals – drug couriers and street dealers — not the drug kingpins that Congress intended to target.  Other considerations, such as the expense of prisons and the exceedingly high rate of incarceration in the United States, also led to those reforms.

As a result the bill reduced sentence lengths, up to 20-25% for some offenses.  It also had a built-in one-year delay until its effective date, so probation offices could increase their staffs, because shorter sentences are most effective at reducing recidivism when prisoners are released into a system of support and monitoring.

Since the Act’s enactment, the Commission has studied outcomes, finding that the recidivism rate is no higher for people released from prison up to two years earlier than they would have been under the old sentencing regime.  In addition, they found that the rate of guilty pleas and cooperation with plea agreements remained the same, meaning shorter sentences did not have a negative effect on prosecutorial bargaining power or result in more trials.  In all, the Commission’s process and the bill’s provisions have been a clear success.

Chief Judge Saris also told the Council about three major sentencing reform bills gaining traction with Congress.

  • The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 would further reduce mandatory minimums and its reductions would also have retroactive effect. In addition, it would provide a safety valve for low-level, non-violent offenders who admit to their role in crimes, lifting the mandatory minimum sentence in favor of judicial discretion.
  • The Corrections Oversight Recidivism Reduction and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act creates a system similar to a parole board, permitting the bureau of prisons to return to the sentencing judge and ask for a reduction in sentence length. The idea is to give a second chance to people who have reformed in prison and, as a result, save money by shortening their sentences.  The bill has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, yet there are some concerns about the risk assessment tool it uses to determine which prisoners are best suited for sentence reductions.  The tool relies heavily on socioeconomic factors such as whether the prisoner is educated or has a home or supportive family.  It also puts a lot of pressure on judges, who have the final say (and potentially blame) as to who qualifies for a sentence reduction.
  • The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 retains mandatory minimum sentences, but gives judges the freedom to stray from the mandatory terms if they find strong mitigating factors.

These bills provide legislators with different options for sentencing reform.  Not everyone is opposed to mandatory minimum sentences.  Many support the uniformity they provide.  However, there appears to be consensus that reform is necessary because current mandatory minimum sentences are too long and applied too broadly.

Underlying this debate are concerns about recidivism and new evidence that longer prison sentences may actually be detrimental to a person’s ability to re-enter society and avoid future criminal activity.  Some states are working on diversion programs, giving people who have committed serious crimes, but who don’t have major records, the ability to take part in lengthy probation terms.  If they successfully complete all of the tasks required of them, these individuals can have their records wiped clean.

In addition, collateral consequences play a role in recidivism discussions.  These include limits on securing housing and jobs, as well as other obstacles that prisoners face upon their release.  There is an increasing understanding that these collateral consequences may be so harsh that they prevent people from successfully re-entering society.  Addressing these problems may become a focus of future bills.

In all, we learned a lot about sentencing this week, from an update on the Dookhan case to a Council presentation by Chief Judge Saris on federal legislation.  We at the BBA continue to oppose mandatory minimum sentences and advocate for sensible, cost-effective reforms.  We are committed to monitoring reforms in this area and keeping our members informed of any progress.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association