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Massachusetts law about criminal law and procedure

A compilation of laws, cases, and web sources on criminal law and procedure law. See Related pages, below, for information on specific criminal law topics.

Table of Contents

Massachusetts laws

St. 2020, c.253 An act relative to justice, equity and accountability in law enforcement in the Commonwealth (police reform law)

July 1 Facial recognition law

MGL c.6, § 220 Use of facial and other remote biometric recognition, effective July 1, 2021

Massachusetts criminal laws are primarily in MGL chapters 263-274:

A crime punishable by death or imprisonment in the state prison is a felony. All other crimes are misdemeanors.

Massachusetts criminal procedure laws are primarily in MGL chapters 275-281:

  • MGL c.275 Proceedings to prevent crimes
  • MGL c.276 Search warrants, rewards, fugitives from justice, arrest, examination, commitment and bail, probation officers and Board of Probation
  • MGL c.276A District Court pretrial diversion of selected offenders
  • MGL c.276B Restorative justice
  • MGL c.277 Indictments and proceedings before trial. See also, amended c.277, § 70C
  • MGL c.277B Statewide grand jury (repealed effective December 31, 2026)
  • MGL c.278 Trials and proceedings before judgment
  • MGL c.278A Post conviction access to forensic and scientific analysis
  • MGL c.279 Judgment and execution
  • MGL c.280 Fines and forfeitures
  • MGL c.281 The General Laws and their effect

Court rules and standards


Selected case law: citizen's arrest

Commonwealth v. Harris, 11 Mass. App. Ct. 165 (1981). Citizen's Arrest.
"In Massachusetts a private person may lawfully arrest someone who has in fact committed a felony... The stricter requirement for a citizen's arrest -- that the person arrested be shown in fact to have committed a felony -- is designed to discourage such arrests and to prevent "the dangers of uncontrolled vigilantism and anarchistic actions." ...Generally, the person arrested must be convicted of a felony before the "in fact committed" element is satisfied and the arrest validated. If the citizen is in error in making the arrest, he may be liable in tort for false arrest or false imprisonment."

Selected case law: court procedure

Brangan v. Commonwealth, 477 Mass. 691 (2017)
The court must consider a criminal defendant's ability to pay when setting bail.

Com. v. Bruneau, 472 Mass. 510 (2015)
Defendant can appeal a finding of not guilty by reason of mental illness pursuant to MGL c. 278, § 28.

Com. v. Digiambattista, 442 Mass. 423 (2004). Jury instructions when interrogations are not recorded
“A defendant whose interrogation has not been reliably preserved by means of a complete electronic recording should be entitled, on request, to a cautionary instruction concerning the use of such evidence.”

Com. v. Dixon, 458 Mass. 446 (2010).
“John Doe” Indictment that described the defendant as John Doe with a certain DNA profile was sufficiently particular, and tolled the statute of limitations until the defendant could be identified and prosecuted.

Com. v. Gomes, 459 Mass. 194 (2011). Judge must go on view

Com. v. Gomez, 480 Mass. 240 (2018) Conditional guilty plea permitted
Defendant can condition his guilty plea on right to appeal denial of a pretrial motion. See also Mass.R.Crim.Proc. Rule 12 (b)(6)

Com. v. Guzman, 446 Mass. 344, 845 NE2d 270 (2006). Accord and Satisfaction
Trial Court may discharge defendant from indictment or complaint upon victim's acknowledgment of satisfaction for injury pursuant to MGL c. 276, § 55.

Com. v. Hernandez, 481 Mass. 582 (2019) When defendant dies during appeal
Instead of vacating a criminal conviction and dismissing the indictment after a defendant dies while his direct appeal pends (applying the doctrine of abatement ab initio), the trial court will record that the defendant's conviction removed the defendant's presumption of innocence as to that charge, but that the conviction was appealed from and was neither affirmed nor reversed because the defendant died while the appeal was pending and the appeal was dismissed.

Com. v. Lewis, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 354 (2019) Guilty pleas are divisible
A court can vacate one guilty plea and leave others in place, even when the pleas were made at the same time in the same proceeding.

Com. v. Martinez, 480 Mass. 777 (2018)
Describes refund of court costs, fees, and restitution after defendant's conviction is vacated and the charge is dismissed with prejudice.

Com. v. Newberry, 483 Mass. 186 (2019).Arraignment before pretrial diversion
On the state's motion, a judge must arraign a defendant before they can take advantage of a pretrial diversion program pursuant to MGL c. 276A, § 3. Also, a judge has the authority to impose conditions of release, including monitoring by probation, on a criminal defendant prior to arraignment.

Com. v. Norman, 484 Mass. 330 (2020). Pre-trial use of GPS monitoring.

Com. v. Portillo, 462 Mass. 324 (2012). English-language transcript of recorded foreign-language interview
"[W]here the Commonwealth intends in its case-in-chief to offer at trial statements made by a defendant in a foreign language in a tape-recorded interview, it is within a judge's discretion to require the Commonwealth to provide defense counsel in advance of trial with an English-language transcript of the interview, and to exclude the statements where the Commonwealth declines to do so."

Com. v. Rodriguez, 461 Mass. 256 (2012) Judge can reduce sentence below agreed recommendation in plea deal
When “a judge acts on his own timely motion to revise or revoke a sentence, the judge has the authority to reduce a sentence where 'it appears that justice may not have been done' regardless of whether a plea agreement includes an agreed sentence recommendation."

Com. v. Warren, 475 Mass. 530 (2016)
Running from police. "the finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for FIO encounters suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt. Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity. Given this reality for black males in the city of Boston, a judge should, in appropriate cases, consider the report's findings in weighing flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion calculus."

Com. v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742 (2020)
Court procedure when a defense attorney knows his client plans to commit perjury when testifying.

Com. v. Yasin, 483 Mass. 343 (2019)
A " judge may not reserve decision on a motion for a required finding of not guilty under Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (a) that is filed at the close of the Commonwealth's case.  Nor may a judge allow such a motion,  nunc pro tunc, after the jury have rendered their verdict."

District Attorney for the Northern District v. Superior Court Dept., 482 Mass. 336 (2019)
Outlines the standard for the retention or transfer of nondocumentary exhibits posttrial.

In re McDonough, 457 Mass. 512 (2010). Procedure for evaluating a request for accommodation from a witness with a disability

Walsh v. Commonwealth, 485 Mass. 567 (2020)
Explains what a court needs to do before setting bail that the defendant can't afford. 

Selected case law: elements or definitions of crimes

Com. v. Adams, 482 Mass. 514 (2019) Interference with a police officer
Interference with the lawful duties of a police officer is a common-law crime in Massachusetts. Decision looks to history to explain the elements of the crime, and concludes that merely being difficult and argumentative is not sufficient.

Com. v. Brown, 477 Mass. 805 (2017)
Liability for common law felony-murder narrowed to require that a defendant may not be convicted of murder without proof of one of the three prongs of malice. 

Com. v. Brule, 98 Mass. App. Ct. 89 (2020)
Discusses when convictions of similar offenses are duplicative.

Com. v. Carrillo, 483 Mass. 269 (2019)
Evidence of heroin distribution alone is not enough to support a conviction of involuntary manslaughter where the heroin caused a tragic death.

Com. v. Montoya, 457 Mass. 102 (2010)
Fleeing from police during an arrest is resisting arrest when circumstances of flight create “a substantial risk of injury to police.”

Com. v. Rivera, 482 Mass. 145 (2019) Accessory after the fact
“The refusal to answer a police officer's questions or provide requested information alone cannot constitute 'aid' or 'assistance' under G.L. c. 274, § 4, because, unless a person is subpoenaed or ordered by a court to testify, no one has a legal obligation to answer a police officer’s questions or to provide information in a criminal investigation.”

Selected case law: police procedure

Collins v. Virginia, __ U.S. __ (2018) US Supreme Court held that a warrant is needed to search a car parked in a driveway at a private home. The "automobile exception" does not give an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant.

Com. v. Barreto, 483 Mass. 716 (2019)
"The mere fact that an officer observes a driver's "nervousness and fidgeting," without more, does not warrant a belief that the safety of the officers or others is threatened."

Com. v. Buckley, 478 Mass. 861 (2018) Pretextual stops
Police may stop a vehicle for an observed traffic violation, even if it is actually a pretext to investigate other crimes. 

Com. v. Clark, 461 Mass. 336 (2012). Invoking Miranda rights by shaking head
Defendant invoked right to remain silent by shaking head “no” in response to a question whether he wanted to speak.

Com. v. German, 483 Mass. 553 (2019) Police must provide an instruction to witnesses before a showup identification
Going forward, police must instruct: "You are going to be asked to view a person; the alleged wrongdoer may or may not be the person you are about to view; it is just as important to clear an innocent person from suspicion as it is to identify the wrongdoer; regardless of whether you identify someone, we will continue to investigate; if you identify someone, I will ask you to state, in your own words, how certain you are."

Com. v. Gautreaux, 458 Mass. 741 (2011). Foreign national has right to consular assistance
"[T]he notifications required by art. 36 [of the Vienna Convention] must be provided to foreign nationals on their arrest; and, if not provided, a challenge to the soundness of any conviction resulting therefrom may be made in a motion for a new trial. The standard to be applied in such circumstances is the substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice standard."

Com. v. Goncalves-Mendez, 484 Mass. 80 (2020) Allowing passenger to take custody of vehicle
When police arrest a driver, and know that a passenger is a licensed driver, they should offer the driver the option of having the passenger take the car, rather than impounding it.

Com. v. Long, 485 Mass. 711 (2020)
Pretextual traffic stops and racial profiling

Com. v. Matta, 483 Mass. 357 (2019) Seizure of a person
"Rather than attempting to determine whether a reasonable person would believe he or she was free to leave, in our view, the more pertinent question is whether an officer has, through words or conduct, objectively communicated that the officer would use his or her police power to coerce that person to stay."

Com. v. Narcisse, 457 Mass. 1 (2010). Frisk during consensual encounter
"[P]olice officers may not escalate a consensual encounter into a protective frisk absent a reasonable suspicion that an individual has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a criminal offense and is armed and dangerous."

Com. v. Ortiz, 478 Mass. 820 (2018) Search under the hood
“[U]nless it is reasonably clear that consent to search extends beyond interior of vehicle, police must obtain explicit consent before vehicular search may extend beneath hood.”

Com. v. Torres-Pagan, 484 Mass. 34 (2020) Patfrisk of driver
To justify a patfrisk of a driver who has exited the car, " an officer needs more than safety concerns; he or she also must have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous."

Com. v. Vasquez, 482 Mass. 850 (2019)
Inadequate Spanish translation of Miranda warning led to suppression of defendant's statements.

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 US 436 (1966). Required warnings
"In dealing with custodial interrogation, we will not presume that a defendant has been effectively apprised of his rights and that his privilege against self-incrimination has been adequately safeguarded on a record that does not show that any warnings have been given or that any effective alternative has been employed." See also, Miranda v. Arizona Explanation from National Paralegal College.

Jury instructions

Most wanted lists

Web sources

Appeals Court frequent appellate process questions, Mass. Appeals Court
Provides essential information in a question and answer format on how to file an appeal in both civil and criminal cases. Covers everything from the notice of appeal to how long to expect to wait for a decision. Great resource!

Bail, Mass. Court System.
Explains the law and process of bail in Massachusetts.

Criminal law: desk reference, Nolo, 2019
A-Z Guide to crimes, punishments and more. Requires free library card for access.

The criminal law handbook: know your rights, survive the system, Nolo, 2020
Explains the criminal system in plain English. Offers an overview of the criminal justice system from arrest to appeal and more. Requires free library card for access.

District Court complaint manual, Mass. District Court
Includes suggested language and offense codes used by prosecutors to charge someone with any of approximately 5000 offenses mentioned in the General Laws, Code of Mass. Regulations, and municipal ordinances & by-laws, provides the authorized sentencing range for each offense, and, if the penalty for an offense is derived from a different statute, that statute is referenced.

Featured practice tips from the Superior Court bench, MCLE
A "series of short 10-minute video briefings offering practical and sage advice from more than forty active and alumni members of the Massachusetts Superior Court."

Frequently asked questions about inquests, Mass. Court System.
Explains how a death investigation works.

Massachusetts criminal practice, 4th ed., by Blumenson, Eric D.
Full-text available via Suffolk University Law School. C 2012

Massachusetts Department of Correction
Find an inmate or a prison, and many other actions and services

Massachusetts high risk sex offenders
Search for sex offenders, and other actions and services

Master crime list, Mass. Sentencing Commission
Lists felonies and misdemeanors first by MGL reference, and then alphabetically by offense, specifying the penalty type and sentencing information.

Print sources

Do no wrong: ethics for prosecutors and defenders, American Bar Association, 2009.

Massachusetts criminal law: a District Court prosecutor's guide, by Richard G. Stearns, loose-leaf.

Massachusetts practice v.32 (Criminal law), 3d ed, West, 2001 with supplement

Massachusetts practice v. 42 (Criminal defense motions),4th ed., West, 2012 with supplement

Suppression matters under Massachusetts law, LexisNexis, annual editions



Within Massachusetts only

Within Massachusetts only


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Last updated: January 13, 2021