This month, the Supreme Judicial Court heard oral argument in Graham v. District Attorney for Hampden County, a case raising the questions of whether the Commonwealth has a duty to investigate the Springfield Police Department (SPD),what that duty entails, and what evidentiary disclosures state prosecutors must make about any exculpatory evidence that prosecution teams may have in events involving the police department. The decision will have significant implications for defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes based on false reports filed by police officers justifying use of force against defendants.
History of Issues with the SPD
The SPD has a history of violence and misconduct. In 2015, multiple off-duty Springfield police officers assaulted four Black men outside Nathan Bill’s Bar resulting in severe injuries. During the arrest of multiple Latinx teenage boys in 2016, a Springfield police officer, Greg Bigda kicked one of the teenagers in the face while the teenager was handcuffed. Later that evening, Bigda interrogated and repeatedly threatened these teenagers and said, “People like you belong in jail!” He also told the teenagers that he would “kill them in the parking lot.” There were 24 internal investigations against Bigda, and 13 of these involved the use of excessive force. Following an investigation, the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office did not prosecute Bigda for these acts and he has not been fired to date. More recently in 2020, Springfield police officers were found guilty of falsifying police reports and portraying defendants as guilty of crimes that they did not commit: both incidents involved charging defendants with resisting arrest and assault and battery, but video footage revealed the officers were the ones who initiated contact with defendants by grabbing their necks.
A new statewide database published by the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission, which documents police officer disciplinary records in Massachusetts from December 1984 to January 2023, revealed that Springfield has the second highest number of complaints against police officers—only trailing behind the state police. There are more than 200 Springfield officers on the list and more than 400 complaints in the database because some officers were charged multiple times. While critics point out the database’s shortcomings, including but not limited to, inconsistent data without clear guidance from POST to police departments on what constitutes reportable misconduct, the prevalence of reported misconduct at the Springfield Police Department is striking.
In July 2020, after a two-year investigation, the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (DOJ) and the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts published a report that concluded there is reasonable cause to believe SPD Narcotics Bureau officers engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. According to the DOJ report, Springfield police officers who engaged in excessive use of force often subsequently brought three types of charges against defendants: resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and assault and battery on a police officer. To date, the Hamden County District Attorney’s Office has failed to conduct a thorough investigation of the incidents identified in the DOJ/U.S. Attorney’s Office report and has not shown any indication that it intends to investigate the false reporting by police officers that defendants behaved in ways that justified the officers’ use of excessive force.
After the release of the DOJ’s report, the ACLU, ACLU of Massachusetts, and Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) in partnership with Goulston & Storrs filed a petition with the SJC alleging that the District Attorney of Hamden County’s Office was engaged in under-investigation of the issues raised in the DOJ report and was failing to disclose exculpatory evidence related to officer misconduct to criminal defendants. In a series of decisions arising out of the state drug lab scandals that jeopardized the integrity of more than 20,000 drug cases in the state, the SJC held that the Commonwealth has a duty to investigate wrongdoing by members of the prosecution team. The Graham petitioners argue that the DOJ’s findings with respect to the SPD and Hampden District Attorney’s Office triggers the Commonwealth’s duty to investigate.
The potentially more difficult question for the Court is what that investigation will entail. Petitioners argued that the Commonwealth’s investigation should:
- Determine which cases involving resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, or assault and battery on a police officer are implicated by the DOJ’s findings from at least 2013;
- Determine which officers are implicated in the DOJ’s findings and review all judicial findings questioning the credibility of SPD officers; and
- Institute remedies until the investigation is complete such as monitoring a Brady list of officers with misconduct issues and ensuring defendants receive exculpatory evidence as it becomes available.
During oral argument, lawyers for the Hampden DA’s office argued that there is not evidence of widespread misconduct at the Hampden District Attorney’s Office that would trigger the Commonwealth’s duty to investigate. They claimed that the DA’s office has routinely turned over exculpatory evidence and has discretion about what evidence to produce in discovery. In addition, the DA’s office repeatedly stated that it is not the prosecution’s responsibility to assist the defense’s investigation—especially with respect to evidence that does not directly relate to the element of a crime, such as officer credibility, because that evidence would likely be inadmissible anyway. While the justices had questions about the breadth of the remedy requested by petitioners, they did have concerns about what the DA’s office planned to do to address the concerning past practices of withholding exculpatory evidence in discovery because the stakes for defendants are so high: someone may end up in jail for a crime they did not commit. The justices also suggested that counsel for the DA’s office was conflating the issue of whether the Commonwealth has a duty to investigate with whether evidence is admissible; the duty to investigate is not contingent upon the likelihood of the admissibility of evidence that the office turns over.
Whether or not the SJC takes the broad measures petitioners are requesting, the decision will inform what structural accountability Massachusetts puts in place to address situations where there is evidence of a pattern or practice of misconduct within a police department. At a minimum, the SJC must provide clear guidance for the prosecution to follow regarding what exculpatory evidence they are required to produce to defendants.
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