In COMMONWEALTH vs. JAMES MELTON 77 Mass. App. Ct. 552 (2010) The Massachusetts appeals court allowed the conviction of a defendant of violating a 209a order despite having his only notification of its existence having come from the plaintiff.
The appeals court in deciding stated “SIKORA, J. A District Court jury convicted the defendant of violation of an abuse prevention order (one count), G. L. c. 209A, § 7, and of threats to commit a crime (two counts), G. L. c. 275, § 2. On appeal he argues that the evidence was insufficient to establish either offense; that the trial judge improperly admitted prejudicial evidence of prior bad acts; and that the judge wrongly excluded the testimony of a police detective and incorrectly denied a missing witness instruction concerning the detective’s absence. For the following reasons, we affirm the convictions.
Analysis. 1. Sufficiency of notice of restraining order. The defendant argues that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of violating a restraining order because (1) he had not received service of the order at the time of the alleged offense, and (2) he lacked actual or constructive notice of the order or its terms. He contends also that without service or notice of the order, the conviction violates his due process rights.
“To establish a violation of G. L. c. 209A, § 7, the Commonwealth must prove that (1) a valid G. L. c. 209A order was entered by a judge and was in effect on the date of the alleged violation; (2) the defendant violated the order; and (3) the defendant had knowledge of the order.” Commonwealth v. Silva, 431 Mass. 401 , 403 (2000). While failure to serve is ” ‘relevant to a determination as to whether the defendant possessed the knowledge required to convict him of violating the order’ . . . it is not fatal if the Commonwealth can demonstrate that the defendant had actual knowledge of the terms of the order.” Commonwealth v. Welch, 58 Mass. App. Ct. 408 , 410 (2003), quoting from Commonwealth v. Delaney, 425 Mass. 587 , 593 (1997), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 1058 (1998).
The defendant disputes the sufficiency of the evidence of his knowledge of the order. It is well settled that “failure of service is not fatal to a conviction.” Commonwealth v. Griffen, 444 Mass. 1004 , 1005 (2005). No due process violation results if the Commonwealth proves that the defendant had actual knowledge of the terms of the order, despite any failure of service. See Delaney, supra at 592-593. All that remains is to determine whether he had actual knowledge of the restraining order and its terms.
The defendant claims that the telephone conversation between Monteiro and him on December 24, 2007, provided inadequate notice of the existence and terms of the restraining order issued on December 21, 2007. We disagree. During that call, Monteiro expressly asked him, “What are you doing calling me; there’s a restraining order.” (Emphasis supplied.) The defendant answered, “Oh, you got a restraining order . . . after all we’ve been through why would you do that. That’s how you want to do this.” In the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, a jury could have found that Monteiro’s statements put the defendant on notice of the existence of a restraining order against him and reasonably advised him that the order prohibited calling. See Commonwealth v. Mendonca, 50 Mass. App. Ct. 684 , 688 (2001) (affirming c. 209A, § 7, convictions where defendant had actual notice of order’s terms because the victim had told him “a few times” that he was not supposed to call her). See also Commonwealth v. Olivo,369 Mass. 62 , 69 (1975), quoting from Essex Natl. Bank v. Hurley, 16 F.2d 427, 428 (1st Cir. 1926) (“[n]otice of facts which would incite a person of reasonable prudence to an inquiry under similar circumstances is notice of all the facts which a reasonably diligent inquiry would develop”). In turn, the jury could have found also that the defendant’s response indicated his awareness and comprehension that Monteiro had, in fact, taken a restraining order out against him.
Therefore, the evidence permitted the jury to find that the defendant had notice of the existence of a restraining order which, at the very least, prohibited him from calling Monteiro, and which he violated by calling her the next day. Because he had sufficient notice, no due process violation occurred.
Conclusion. Sufficient evidence showed that the defendant had notice of the restraining order and its terms and that he threatened Monteiro. The judge properly admitted evidence of the defendant’s prior abuse of the victim and correctly denied the defendant’s request to call a witness to the stand and give a missing witness instruction. Because we find no error, we affirm the defendant’s convictions.
The dissent by Justice Grasso (below) is however worth reading. As a matter of practical application is this really an acceptable practice? It will be interesting to see whether the SJC takes up the case and how they decide it.
Attorney Ronald A. Sellon
“GRASSO, J. (concurring in part and dissenting in part). I agree that the defendant’s convictions of threats should be affirmed. I respectfully disagree that the evidence sufficed to establish that he had actual or constructive knowledge of the ex parte restraining order or its terms to support his conviction on that charge.
The dangers faced by those seeking the protection of a restraining order cannot be gainsaid. Indeed, the danger posed to Monteiro by this defendant is graphically set forth by the majority. Nevertheless, before a defendant may be convicted of violating a restraining order, he must have actual knowledge or fair notice of the order and its prohibitions. See Commonwealth v. Welch, 58 Mass. App. Ct. 408 , 409-410 (2003). Here, the defendant had neither.
The defendant was not present in court when the restraining order issued, nor did the police serve the order prior to the violation alleged. [Note Grasso-1] See id. at 410 (failure to serve order relevant to determination whether defendant possessed knowledge required). Contrast Commonwealth v. Silva, 431 Mass. 194 , 195, 197, 199 (2000) (defendant’s presence in court when restraining order issues provides requisite notice); Commonwealth v. Mendonca, 50 Mass. App. Ct. 684 , 688 (2001) (defendant’s presence in court and service of original order provide requisite knowledge). Nor did a police officer communicate the existence of the order and its terms to the defendant orally. Contrast Commonwealth v. Griffen, 444 Mass. 1004 , 1005 (2005) (police officer’s reading terms of order to defendant via telephone suffices to prove defendant’s actual knowledge of order and its terms). The fact that Monteiro told the defendant that he should not be “calling” her because “there’s a restraining order” and reminded him of the restraining order in telephone conversations on December 24 and 25 does not suffice to establish the defendant’s knowledge of the order and its terms for purposes of conviction.
Unlike a police officer, a person granted protection under a restraining order is an interested party who has no authority to serve the order, much less advise the subject of the order as to its existence and terms. Compare ibid. Indeed, the Legislature has established that service of the order is to be made by “the appropriate law enforcement agency.” See G. L. c. 209A, §§ 4, 7, as appearing in St. 1990, c. 403, §§ 4, 8. It is neither safe nor wise to permit the recipient of a restraining order to become the recognized source of the subject’s knowledge of the order. Such reliance will make service of the order by authorities a less pressing need, expose the recipient to needless danger, and lead to confusion and misuse.
To the extent that the majority looks to dictum in Mendonca, supra at 688, as authority for the proposition that oral advice from the recipient to the subject of a restraining order suffices to establish the subject’s actual knowledge, such reliance is misplaced. In Mendonca, the defendant’s actual knowledge arose because he was present in court when the original order issued and was served subsequently. See ibid. [Note Grasso-2]
Such is not the case here. The defendant was not in court when the restraining order issued, nor was he presented with a copy of the restraining order by the police (or anyone else) or otherwise provided fair notice of existence of the order or its prohibitions. Contrast Commonwealth v. Delaney, 425 Mass. 587 , 591-593 (1997). To the extent that the defendant may be said to have knowledge of the existence and terms of the order, such proof could only have come through Monteiro’s statements made to him over the telephone.
Even assuming that oral communication of the order and its terms from the recipient to the subject may suffice to establish actual knowledge or put the subject on fair notice, I do not
think that the evidence establishes that the defendant had actual knowledge or was put on sufficient notice to make reasonable inquiry prior to the December 25 violation at issue. Compare Welch, supra at 410. Monteiro testified that the defendant telephoned around 7:00 or 7:30 P.M. on December 24, asked what she was doing and if she had gone to the police, and threatened to “play dirty.” In the course of that conversation, she told him, “What are you doing calling me; there’s a restraining order.” When he questioned why she would do that after all they had been through, she hung up. Even if the defendant were already aware that Monteiro had gone to the police, that awareness does not also establish that he knew that she had sought a restraining order, that one had issued, or the prohibitions of the order. Even viewed together, the defendant’s statements to Monteiro and Monteiro’s responses in the December 24 conversation do not suffice to establish that he had actual or constructive knowledge of the existence and terms of the order. Monteiro’s bare declaration that there was a restraining order and that he should not be calling her does not, in my view, suffice to establish the defendant’s actual knowledge or to put him on fair notice of the existence and terms of the order under penalty of conviction. [Note Grasso-3]
Monteiro’s description of the December 25 conversation adds little. [Note Grasso-4] Beyond stating that she again told the defendant that there was a restraining order, Monteiro provided no other specifics regarding the defendant’s knowledge of the restraining order.
Given these deficiencies, and absent the defendant’s presence in court when the order issued, service of the order upon him, or communication of the order and its terms by a police officer, the actual knowledge or fair notice of the order and its terms that is requisite for conviction is lacking.”