Governor signs Bill creating new crimes against suspects in domestic violence

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick recently signed into law a new senate act on domestic violence and sexual assaults. The legislation, known as Senate Bill 2334 – An Act relative to domestic violence, creates new criminal charges for domestic violence, requires the convening of special executive teams to investigate the causes and consequences of domestic violence across the state, and requires that funding be set aside for training state officers on handling domestic disputes.

Assault and Battery on Household Members

Section 26 of the Senate bill amended chapter 265 of the Massachusetts General Laws by creating several new criminal charges where none previously existed. For example, an assault or an assault and battery on a family or household member is now punishable by imprisonment in the house of correction for up to 2 ½ years and a fine of $5000. This sentence applies only to first time offenders; subsequent offenders are punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment in state prison.

For the purposes of this charge, the act defines a “family or household member” as any married couple, any set of parents – regardless if they ever married or lived together, or individuals who are in a “substantive dating or engagement relationship.” Note, however, that the proper interpretation of this definition is yet to be defined by the courts, with guidance provided in the language of the legislation itself.

Suffocation and Strangulation
The act also created a criminal statute prohibiting strangling and suffocating any individual. Under this new legislation, strangulation or suffocation of another is punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment in state prison, 2 ½ years in a house of correction, and a fine of $5000. As with assault and battery on a household member, these sentencing guidelines apply only to first time offenders. The act punishes offenders with up to 10 years imprisonment in state prison, 2 ½ years in a house of correction, and a fine of up to $10,000 if:
– the offender is a repeat offender,
– the victim suffers serious bodily injury,
– the offender knows, or had reason to know, that the victim is pregnant, or – the offender acted despite knowing that an abuse prevention or no contact order is in place against him by the victim.

Other Important Provisions

The act contains a number of other controversial provisions, one of which bans the public disclosure of information pertaining to domestic violence or sexual assault cases. There is some concern over this provision primarily because it protects the offender’s identity from public eye. But in doing so, the act also protects victims from further harassment, suffering, and embarrassment that may be instigated by unauthorized third parties who are related to, or sympathize with, the offender.

Another provision affects the time after which a person incarcerated for violating one of these offenses may be released pending his trial. The new law delays bail by 6 hours. The purpose of the new bail delay provision is to allow victims an opportunity to flee or relocate safely without being harassed by offenders. However, courts may soon see arguments by defendants claiming their constitutional rights to due process are violated by this provision since the defendants are being deprived of their freedom beyond the necessary time for a court or magistrate to set bail.

Given the length, complexity, and controversy surrounding this act, there is no doubt that various provisions will be raised into question throughout Massachusetts courts, and possibly even the U.S. Supreme Court. Until cases are brought before the courts challenging the charges against the offenders, both police officers and other state agents will be attempting to interpret and execute these provisions by their own interpretations. That is why it is especially important for individuals charged under these new crimes to retain an experienced Massachusetts defense attorney who will be able to protect their rights and ensure that any abuse or misapplication by state agents is raised to the court’s attention for relief.

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