In the District Courts in Massachusetts, typically the most severe punishments are imposed for probation violations, rather than for being found guilty of a crime. Those who are given a jail sentence are almost always on probation when the sentence is imposed. At a probation violation hearing, a court can punish a probationer for either (1) being charged with a crime while already on probation; or (2) violating a condition of probation, e.g., failing a drug test, missing an office visit with the probation officer, or failing to keep the P.O. apprised of the probationer’s current address (“technical violations”).
In cases where the probationer is on probation in more than one court, a single act of criminal misconduct can often subject the probationer to probation violation proceedings – and additional punishments – in more than one court.
In February of 2013, an individual who was on probation in several courts was charged with unarmed robbery. At his first probation violation hearing, the judge found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the probationer had not violated the terms of his probation.
The probationer then consolidated his probation violation cases in two other courts, and essentially asked the judge to make a ruling that the probationer could not be found in violation of probation, since he had already been found NOT in violation in a prior proceeding. The judge denied the request.
In May of 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts allowed the probationer’s petition for relief pursuant to G.L. c. 211, § 3, and then reversed the decision below, holding that, since there was (1) a common factual issue; (2) a prior determination of that issue in litigation between the same parties; (3) a showing that the determination was in favor of the probationer; and (4) an identity of standards of proof, common law principles of collateral estoppel barred the government (probation department) from relitigating the issue.
The take away is that if one court finds there was no probation violation after a hearing, another court cannot subsequently find a probation violation based on the same misconduct.
Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan