Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Supreme Judicial Court Rules on Criminal Procedure Question in Massachusetts Bank Robbery Case

In the 1990’s, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled on an integral case in criminal procedure, Commonwealth v. Rosario. The SJC’s ruling in Rosario established a rule that statements that are made by an arrested suspect within six hours of his or her arrest are not subject to suppression due to a delay in his or her arraignment, but that statements made beyond six hours of arrest are inadmissible in evidence unless the arrested suspect has waived his or her right to timely arraignment. Last week, the SJC applied the Rosario ruling to a recent appeals case that it transferred on its own initiative from the Appeals Court to which the Commonwealth had appealed the lower court’s order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence.

The basic facts in Commonwealth v. Fortunato were summarized in the SJC’s opinion. The defendant was indicted for armed robbery and for being a habitual offender after he allegedly robbed a Reading, Massachusetts bank. At that bank, a man, thought to be the defendant, made statements that he had a firearm, and told the teller to give him cash. The man fled the scene but was caught on the bank’s security cameras. A detective named Michael Saunders of the Reading police department was assigned to the case and went to New York where the defendant had recently been released from prison. The defendant was meeting with his New York parole officer when Saunders and a State Trooper informed him that he was a suspect in the bank robbery. Saunders and the State Trooper administered the defendant his Miranda warnings and recorded an interview. The defendant indicated to Saunders and the State Trooper that he would speak with them after he was returned to Massachusetts.

Two days later, Saunders and the State Trooper arrested the defendant in Massachusetts. The defendant was taken to the Reading police department about one hour later. The arresting officers apparently did not inform the defendant of his right to prompt arraignment during his arrest. During booking, which occurred almost two hours later, the defendant was given his Miranda warnings, and the defendant acknowledged in writing that he had received them. When Saunders attempted to interview the defendant, he refused this time, and was returned from the interview room to his holding cell.

Over six hours from his arrest, and about four hours after his booking, the defendant finally asked to speak to Saunders. Saunders went to the defendant’s cell but did not mention anything about the defendant’s right to prompt arraignment, nor did he provide an arraignment waiver form.  Saunders did not re-administer the defendant’s Miranda warnings.  Saunders and the defendant then proceeded to have a conversation regarding the events that took place at the Reading bank, in a hypothetical manner.

The lower court’s motion judge ruled that the exchange that took place between Saunders and the defendant that night in the defendant’s cell was inadmissible into evidence due to the Rosario rule. The lower court judge held that Rosario establishes a bright-line rule that gives the police a safe-harbor for questioning suspects, but that when that safe-harbor expires, statements made by the defendant are inadmissible. The judge did not address the Commonwealth’s argument that the defendant’s statements were “spontaneous and unsolicited” because she believed that the Rosario ruling applied to any statements.

The SJC did not address whether spontaneous and unsolicited statements would be admissible under Rosario, but rather determined that they were inadmissible because they were the fruit of direct police questioning, which falls squarely under Rosario. The SJC ultimately determined that although it was spread out, the over six hours in which the defendant was in police custody constituted a single episode of police questioning, which is protected under the Rosario rule. Therefore, the SJC affirmed the defendant’s motion to suppress the statements that he had made to Saunders.

If you have been charged with violating Massachusetts’ criminal laws, you should immediately seek out the assistance of an experienced criminal attorney. Contact Edward R. Molari, Attorney at Law today for a confidential consultation.