Dangerousness Is In The Eye of the Statute, Massachusetts High Court Says

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/08/13/dangerousness-is-in-the-eye-of-the-statute-massachusetts-high-court-says/

A driver who admitted drinking two shots of whiskey and taking oxycodone and another prescription drug before blacking out and hitting a pedestrian and about a dozen cars should not have been held without bail under the state’s dangerousness law, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Friday.

That’s because the state statute that allows detaining a person after a dangerousness hearing does not specifically mention the crimes the driver was charged with – which were manslaughter and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury.

“The ability to detain an individual who has not been convicted pending trial is subject to crucial constitutional limits,” wrote Frank Gaziano, a justice of the state’s highest court, in the opinion.

Roland F. Escobar Jr. was driving a sport utility vehicle on Main Street in Taunton at about 4:35 p.m. Tuesday August 3, 2021 when his vehicle hit several other vehicles; struck and fatally injured a 59-year-old woman, Lisa Rocha, of Taunton; and then hit several more vehicles. Rocha was leaving a shoe store at the time of the collision, and was approaching the driver’s side door of her Subaru Forester that was parked on Main Street.

“The video-surveillance demonstrated the jaw-dropping dangerousness of the defendant’s conduct and the force he used in accomplishing his crimes,” states a brief filed by Bristol County assistant district attorney Mary Lee dated February 14, 2022.

Escobar later told police he had drunk two shots of Fireball Whiskey and that he had consumed oxycodone that may have contained fentanyl, as well as Gabapentin, an anticonvulsant prescription drug.

The state’s dangerousness statute allows prosecutors to ask a judge to hold a defendant without bail or to be released with special conditions on a felony charge “that has as an element of the offense the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force against the person of another or any other felony that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person of another may result.” The dangerousness statute specifically mentions burglary, arson, restraining order violations, and cases where convicted felons who have gotten out of prison are charged for a second or more time with illegally possessing a weapon.

The dangerousness law, the assistant district attorney wrote in her brief, “protects the public from a defendant’s anticipated future criminal conduct and his likelihood of future bad conduct that foreseeably and irreparably will harm the public.”

Escobar’s lawyer, public defender Patrick Levin, argued that Escobar was charged with crimes stemming from recklessness, not intentional use of force, which he said is not covered by the state’s dangerousness statute.

“The complaint alleges only crimes that may be committed by means of negligent or reckless conduct, and its supporting documents contain no allegation that Mr. Escobar intentionally injured or killed anyone,” Levin wrote in a brief dated March 10, 2022.

“The Supreme Judicial Court has held that this language encompasses only offenses whose legal elements require an intentional application of physical force; a person who behaves negligently or recklessly cannot be said to have ‘use[d] physical force against the person of another,’ even if their careless conduct results in serious injuries to another person,” Levin wrote (with emphasis and brackets in the original).

The Supreme Judicial Court ruling this week affects bail in future dangerousness hearings. It does not affect the criminal case against Escobar, which is pending in Bristol Superior Court.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case is called Commonwealth vs. Roland F. Escobar Jr.; it was decided Friday, August 12, 2022.


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