Massachusetts High Court Holds that Zoom Hearing Could Pass Constitutional Muster but Facts of Particular Case Should Have Resulted in Continuance

Like everyone else in society, Cape Cod criminal defense attorneys and their clients have had to approach a lot of things differently during the last year due to the pandemic. As criminal cases, both misdemeanors and felonies, have made their way through the criminal justice system, many questions have arisen.

What happens when public safety measures collide with rights secured by the U.S. Constitution to the criminally accused? Many of these questions remain unanswered as the legal issues wind their way through the courts.

In a case recently considered by the state’s highest tribunal, the issue was whether a Zoom hearing was permissible given certain constitutional rights. As is often the case, the court had to take several different factors into consideration.

Facts of the Case

In a recent criminal court case that was considered on appeal by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the defendant was charged with a felony drug offense. In late 2019, he filed a motion to suppress certain evidence and statements. The matter was scheduled for a hearing in early 2020, but the defendant requested a continuance and it was reset for May 2020. The second hearing date was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At some point thereafter, the trial court judge ordered that the hearing take place via Zoom. The defendant objected to the Zoom hearing and asked that the matter be continued until an in-person hearing could be held safely. When making this request, the defendant agreed to waive his right to a speedy trial.

A hearing was conducted over Zoom regarding the defendant’s motion for a continuance. The trial court judge denied the motion. The defendant filed an appeal directly to the state’s highest court pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, § 3. A single justice reserved and reported the question of the constitutionality of virtual hearings for the full court’s consideration.

The Court’s Decision

The court began by acknowledging that both the Governor of Massachusetts and the President of the United States had declared a state of emergency in March 2020 due to the COVID-10 pandemic. Since that time, over 17,000 deaths had occurred in Massachusetts due to the virus. In addressing the novel issue of whether a virtual hearing satisfied the constitutional right to be present a motion-to-suppress hearing, the court found that, in certain circumstances such a hearing could be conducted virtually without violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.

In the instant case, however, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the lower court, holding that, although a virtual hearing was not a per se violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights in the midst of the pandemic, the trial court judge had abused her discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to continue to suppression hearing until it could be held in person, given the particular circumstances presented. In so holding, the court noted that the defendant had waived his right to a speedy trial and that there were no civilian victims or witnesses who would testify at the hearing.

Speak to a Cape Cod Criminal Defense Attorney

Those who are facing criminal charges in a court of law need experienced, assertive legal representation. For an appointment to speak to a member of our firm about your Cape Cod criminal court case, call the Law Offices of John C. Manoog III at 888-262-6664. We serve clients in Hyannis, Plymouth, and the surrounding area.

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