The Massachusetts joint venture laws are perhaps the most confusing for jurors to appreciate and understand. A joint venturer is someone who aids or assists in the commission of a crime. This is the person or people who help the principle do the actual act. Helping someone escape or acting as a lookout can also be acts that impart responsibility as a joint venturer. It is the obligation of the district attorney to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the joint venturer had the same intent as the principle; that he or she intended that the crime be committed. Mere knowledge that a crime is being committed or mere presence at the crime scene is not enough to satisfy the prosecution’s burden of establishing a joint venture. All of that is understandable but here is where the law becomes problematic. A jury can infer the mental state of the joint venturer based the circumstances of the case. So what does the district attorney do in cases where many people are caught and present at a crime scene? They charge them all with the crimes and let the jury make the determination as to each person’s intent. This is completely unfair, disingenuous and downright dangerous. The following recent Brockton cocaine trafficking arrest demonstrates my concerns.
Gun Charges and Cocaine Trafficking Charges Issue Following Search
After a two month investigation the Brockton police executed a search of a home where they found enough drugs to support cocaine trafficking charges. The search was conducted at 5:30 in the morning. The police also found two guns and a significant amount of ammunition. Six people were charged with gun possession, trafficking cocaine and possession with intent to distribute heroin. Now how is it possible to charge six people with possession of two firearms? The district attorney will tell you that all of the accused jointly possessed the guns to protect their drug distribution operation. Really? How so? Were people threatened with the guns? Were all six people using the guns in some way to traffic or possession with the intent to distribute the drugs? How is the district attorney going to show this? It is purely speculative yet they will be permitted to proceed against all of the defendants on the gun charges.
The Dangers of the Joint Venture Laws
So, the district attorney is charging everyone who was “merely present” and leaving it to the jury to decide what knowledge and intent the occupants of the home had. The job of the district attorney is not to charge everyone present with all of the crimes it can think of charging. The function of prosecutors is to charge what they truly believe each of the accused in fact did. That is not how they are proceeding here. The joint venture law will however permit a jury to make this ultimate decision. Most judges will not use their power to allow a motion for a required finding and acquit on gun charges in cases like this one. The jury is going to have to decide what everyone was thinking. This is not right.
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