Unlike in some other states, you still need a license to own a gun in Massachusetts. The state's highest court ruled today that in certain cases, judges can order people arrested for violating the law to be held without bail before trial as a danger to society - such as a man arrested after driving through a police barricade at the Franklin Field housing project early one morning last year, allegedly with a loaded gun in his glove compartment
Jorge Vega of Leonminster already had a warrant out of his arrest when, around 3 a.m. on May 8, 2021, he arrived at one end of Westview Street in Dorchester only to find it blocked by a barricade police had set up to try to keep ATVs and dirt bikes out of the Franklin Field development. According to the Supreme Judicial Court's summary of his case:
An officer signaled with his hands and verbally commanded Vega to stop. Vega looked at the officer but drove through the barricade toward the end of the dead-end street. He stopped when officers followed. Vega told officers in response to their inquiry that he did not have his driver's license with him.
Officers then found the gun, loaded with seven bullets, during an inventory search before they had the car towed away.
In court, Suffolk County prosecutors moved to have Vega detained pending trial as a potential danger to society, based on his already pending warrant in another court, the nature of his arrest and his past record - which included a conviction for the nine rounds of ammo police found in one of his pockets after he showed up at an emergency room for a gunshot wound - and that fact he was violating a curfew on an earlier charge. The judge agreed.
Vega's attorney appealed, lost in Superior Court and before one justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, then appealed to the SJC, which issued its ruling today in a decision covering both his case and another dangerousness case in Worcester.
The court said "the government has a legitimate and compelling interest in preventing extremely serious crime by arrestees," and that the state law is crafted to ensure that only people who pose a potentially serious risk to the community are held without bail, after a dangerousness hearing before a judge. Not everybody charged with unlawful possession of a firearm is ordered held without bail, the court said.
The justices noted that the state legislature added illegal gun possession to the statue allowing for pre-trial detention without bail via dangerousness hearings in 2010:
The menace of dangerousness posed to individuals and communities by the possession of illegal firearms has only worsened over the past thirteen years. The daily onslaught of young people being shot, and the prospect of mass shootings, including in schools, has become too familiar a part of the modern news cycle. To be sure, these shootings are not all committed by individuals who illegally possess firearms. But certainly the fact that a firearm is illegally possessed increases the likelihood that it will be used illegally.
This is why the Legislature consistently has penalized illegal firearm possession. ...
In sum, common sense and legislative intent demonstrate that unlicensed firearm possession is a dangerous menace.
In Vega's case, the court said the judge's decision to hold him without bail did not violate his due-process rights:
In Vega's case, the live witness testified from personal knowledge that police had found a firearm in Vega's car, and a police report about the incident stated that the firearm was loaded. The documentary evidence also showed that Vega had two other firearm and ammunition possession cases pending, one of which arose from Vega presenting to a hospital emergency room with a gunshot wound and ammunition in his pocket and the other of which arose out of an incident that occurred while he was subject to GPS monitoring. All of the relevant police reports were detailed and based on officers' personal observations as well as, in the emergency room case, an interview with a nurse. ... The documentary evidence, including a case docket, also showed that Vega had been arrested in the current case while in violation of a curfew imposed as a condition of his pretrial release in one of his pending matters.