Supreme Judicial Court, January 14, 2013

A defendant charged with murder in the first degree is entitled to a probable cause hearing in the District Court as soon as reasonably practicable in the circumstances presented.

In January 2011, the defendant was arraigned for murder in the first degree and unlawfully carrying a firearm.  After arraignment, the case was scheduled for a probable cause hearing and the Commonwealth successfully moved to continue the first three probable cause hearings.  During this time, a judge denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss or for release.  In May 2011, a grand jury indicted the defendant and the case in district court was nol prossed without a probable cause hearing occurring. Before the indictment was returned, a single justice heard the defendant’s G.L. c. 211, § 3 petition and denied the defendant’s request that a probable cause hearing be conducted as soon as possible or that the pending complaint be dismissed.  The defendant appealed.

The SJC considered whether a person charged and held on a District Court complaint for murder in the first degree is entitled to probable cause hearing and, if so, the timing of such hearing. 

The Commonwealth argued that a defendant, charged with first degree murder, has no right to a probable cause hearing under G.L. c. 276, § 38 because he is not entitled to waive his right to an indictment pursuant to G.L. c. 263, § 4A.  The SJC instead found that a defendant, charged with first degree murder, is entitled to a probable cause hearing and the waiver provision in G.L. c. 263, § 4A is irrelevant and does not alter his independent right to a probable cause hearing established in G.L. c. 276, § 38.

The SJC declined to offer a bright-line rule about the timing of the probable cause hearing.  Instead it held that the language “as soon as may be” in G.L. c. 276, § 38 means the hearing is to be held as soon as reasonably practicable in the circumstances presented.  The Court recognized the importance of the probable cause hearing in preventing the defendant from being held for trial on groundless or unmeritorious charges.  It is the judge’s responsibility to review the Commonwealth’s request for a continuance by “mak[ing] a meaningful inquiry into the specific reasons for the request, and to consider whether the Commonwealth has shown good cause for it.”   Where a defendant is being held in custody, any one continuance of the probable cause hearing may not exceed thirty days.  G.L. c. 276, § 35.

The Court held that the Single Justice did not abuse his discretion, or commit other error of law, in deny the relief sought by the defendant in his G.L. c. 211, § 3 petition.