Recently, the outstanding efforts of public defenders – and assigned counsel – have led to great results for our clients in the Supreme Judicial Court. This Tuesday, the SJC issued two groundbreaking decisions expanding access to post-conviction forensic analysis under G.L. c. 278A, in Commonwealth v. Williams and Commonwealth v. Putnam. And just two weeks earlier, the Court decided in Commonwealth v. Feliz and Commonwealth v. Johnson that the attachment of a GPS monitor is a constitutionally significant search that cannot be imposed on a mandatory basis.
Lisa Kavanaugh, Director of the CPCS Innocence Program, submitted an amicus brief in Williams and Putnam, along with exoneree Dennis Maher and attorneys from the New England Innocence Project and the Boston College Innocence Project. Both cases were argued by Merritt Schnipper, who was assigned counsel. The SJC adopted the arguments made by the defendants and amici, holding that a claim of factual innocence can be asserted by a defendant who claims that no crime occurred. As a result of the hard work of the advocates involved, Massachusetts has become one of a very small number of jurisdictions that recognize self-defense as a form of factual innocence.
David Rangaviz of the Public defender Division Appeals Unit represented Mr. Feliz in the SJC, in his appeal from the mandatory imposition of a GPS monitor pursuant to G.L. c. 256, §47, following his conviction on child pornography charges. Mr. Feliz was represented in Suffolk Superior Court by Public Defender Division staff attorney, Alyssa Hackett. The SJC held that the imposition of the GPS monitor is a search that cannot comport with article 14 unless a judge makes an individualized determination that the Commonwealth’s interest in imposing the GPS monitor outweighs the privacy invasion occasioned by such monitoring. Given the record establishing the very onerous nature of a GPS device (Alyssa presented evidence showing that Mr. Feliz’s device frequently lost signal, often requiring him to leave his workplace to walk around outside – or risk arrest), his perfect compliance with probation, and his low risk of re-offense, the SJC struck the probation condition subjecting him to GPS monitoring. Credit is also due to Ryan Schiff, former CPCS Director of Juvenile Appeals and Special Litigation staff attorney, who worked with Alyssa to craft the motion in the trial court. Thanks to the efforts of these dedicated public defenders, many of our clients will be freed from their electronic shackles. This case represents a much-needed departure from our “one size fits all” treatment of people convicted of sex offenses.
Thank you and congratulations to Lisa, Merritt, Dave, Alyssa and Ryan! And thank you to entire staff for your tireless work arguing and preserving these types of issues at every level to make systemic change possible!