The Supreme Court on Monday ordered the state’s highest court to reexamine the case of a homeless woman convicted of possessing a stun gun, with two justices delivering a withering rebuke to the court for upholding a state law banning the weapons.
In a two-page order, the high court said the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court erred last year in affirming the conviction of Jaime Caetano, who pulled a stun gun on a violent ex-boyfriend who had ignored several restraining orders.
The order sent the case back to the SJC for reconsideration.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito delivered a stinging rebuke to the SJC in a 10-page concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Alito said the SJC wrongly held that stun guns are not protected by the Second Amendment because they were not in use when the Bill of Rights was created and because they fall within the traditional prohibition against dangerous and unusual weapons, among other factors.
“Stun guns are widely owned and accepted as a legitimate means of self-defense across the country,” Alito wrote, noting that electronic firearms are legal in more than 40 states. “Massachusetts’ categorical ban of such weapons therefore violates the Second Amendment.”
Stun guns are electronic devices, such as Tasers, that administer an electric shock to immobilize, but not kill, an individual. In Massachusetts, stun guns may be used by law enforcement officials but not by private citizens, according to the state law.
In Caetano’s case, the stun gun might have saved her life, Alito wrote.
“The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was either unable or unwilling to do what was necessary to protect Jaime Caetano, so she was forced to protect herself,” Alito wrote. “To make matters worse, the Commonwealth chose to deploy its prosecutorial resources to prosecute and convict her of a criminal offense for arming herself with a nonlethal weapon that may well have saved her life.”
The high court’s order stops short of overturning the state law but could prompt lawmakers to rethink the ban and consider passing legislation to license them, said Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.
“Unfortunately, it’s another impediment in the way of gun control,” Capeless said. “I think the Legislature was wise when they passed the prohibition because these [stun guns] can be very dangerous. And the fact that they’re intended not to kill does not mean that in certain circumstances, they could not actually cause an unfortunate result.”
Caetano had obtained a stun gun to protect herself against the father of her children, who had beaten her severely enough to land her in the hospital, court records show.
The man confronted her outside her workplace in New Bedford and began screaming, so she displayed a stun gun for protection, and he fled, according to legal filings.
But that same stun gun later led Caetano to be charged with one count of possession of an electronic stun gun after she was questioned in a shoplifting incident in the parking lot of a Shaw’s supermarket in Ashland.
The stun gun was found in her purse by a police officer to whom she had given permission to search her bag, according to a past Globe article.
Caetano was convicted in 2013 under the state law that bans possession of a stun gun by private citizens. Caetano challenged the law in court.
Benjamin H. Keehn, a lawyer for Caetano, praised the Supreme Court’s order.
“We are looking forward to an opportunity to restore her good name,” Keehn said, in a phone interview. “
But he noted the order did not vacate Caetano’s conviction.
Keehn filed a formal request for the Supreme Court to review her case last June. He praised the justices for finding that “criminalizing the simple possession of a stun gun obviously being used for lawful self-defense is unfair.”
Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan’s office, which prosecuted Caetano, said in a brief statement that the case “was prosecuted under the current Massachusetts law that bans private ownership of stun guns and classifies them as dangerous weapons. Today’s opinion asks the Supreme Judicial Court to further review this statute. We will await guidance from the court as they examine this issue.”
Jennifer Donahue, a spokeswoman for the SJC, said the case has now returned to the state panel.
“When the justices convene, they will decide what further proceedings are appropriate, and whether to request further briefing or oral argument,” Donahue wrote in an e-mail.
Keith G. Langer, attorney for the Commonwealth Second Amendment group, which has supported the challenges to the ban, said the Supreme Court has sent a clear signal to the SJC and the Massachusetts Legislature that the law banning ownership of stun guns must be overhauled.
Langer stressed that until those changes actually take place, it is still a crime to carry a stun gun in Massachusetts.