Lawmakers may restrict use of Valor Act
The legislator who authored the Massachusetts Valor Act is working to amend it so that military service could no longer be used as a defense against violent crimes, after a disclosure that a New Bedford man accused of assaulting his girlfriend was cleared of the charges based on his military service.
State Senator Michael F. Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat, said through a spokesman he intends to push to amend the 2012 law, which the New Bedford victim’s attorney called a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”
“Domestic abuse and assault is unacceptable, inexcusable, and intolerable by any individual, especially by a veteran,” Rush said in a statement. He wants to change the law’s provisions “when it comes to crimes committed against individuals or any other loophole that does not ensure justice.”
The Valor Act, signed by then-Governor Deval Patrick, gave lower court judges the discretion to send veterans accused of criminal charges to rehabilitation or counseling programs, rather than jail, among other measures intended to support veterans.
The Globe reported last month that the law was recently applied to the case of a man charged with trying to strangle his girlfriend.
Despite the pleas of the former girlfriend in court and the objection of the district attorney, Bristol County Judge John P. Stapleton allowed the assault and strangulation charges against Allan T. Santos to be dismissed because he was undergoing counseling.
In an unusual application of the law, Stapleton also applied the Valor Act retroactively, after Santos had been arraigned, clearing his criminal record as if he had never been accused.
Christopher Trundy, the attorney who represented the New Bedford victim, said the case illustrates a critical flaw of the Valor Act: Nothing in it seems to prohibit a veteran from being cleared of the same sort of crime more than once.
“There’s no way of monitoring it being used repeatedly,” Trundy said. “You could successfully use it over and over again because there’s no record.”
Rush, who chairs the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, said he is working with his cochair, Representative John J. Lawn Jr., a Watertown Democrat, and the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on language that would exempt crimes against others from the Valor Act’s provisions.
Currently, the law is broadly accessible to any veteran in district courts and Boston Municipal Court, with limited exceptions for crimes against the elderly and for those who have previously been convicted.
“In respect to certain crimes, I think the bill could be tightened up,” said Bristol County District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn. “There does not seem to be any disqualifications in the cases other than cases brought to Superior Court.”
Quinn also pointed to a lack of correlation in the law between military service and trauma and between the specific criminal charges and the specific treatment veterans receive.
The criminal provisions of the law extend to all servicemen and women — not only those who have served in combat and experienced trauma — and do not insist that their rehabilitation be specific to their criminal charges. Santos’s military service consisted of four years in the Navy in Hawaii in the 1980s.
Quinn said there should be “more of a nexus between individual’s condition and what you’re trying to accomplish. I think more of a balancing approach.”
In an unrelated case, the Valor Act allowed a recent ROTC graduate of Boston College to skirt charges of randomly assaulting a woman who was riding by on a bicycle in the Fort Point Channel section of Boston in the summer of 2016.
Jacob Pridotkas, then 21, of Holden, was accused of charging toward Jacqueline Boltik and pushing her off her bicycle, leaving her with a concussion and a dislocated shoulder. He then allegedly tried to get into another woman’s car, the police report shows.
Pridotkas apologized in a letter to the court, blaming his actions on an alcohol-fueled night and saying that he later sought treatment. His lawyer, Mark Sullivan, asked the judge to dismiss the charges under the Valor Act and spoke of its potential impact on his military career. Sullivan did not return phone calls from the Globe.
But a Suffolk County prosecutor objected, saying the Valor Act was not appropriate: Pridotkas was not a veteran.
Though he had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, he wasn’t due to report for duty until the fall, documents submitted to the court show.
Still, Boston Municipal Court Judge Michael J. Coyne allowed the charges to be dismissed and his record cleared.
Boltik, the victim, said she supports the intent of the Valor Act and the idea of rehabilitation.
However, she was dismayed there would be no record of such a random attack.
“I just wanted to make sure it was documented in some way so that if it happened again, people would know,” she said.
Likewise, she was bewildered that the court never evaluated the evidence in the case or the impact on the victims.
“I went to court hoping to be able to express how it had impacted me,” she said. “Instead, I was silenced and I had to sit there, unable to speak, hearing how it might impact him.”
She was also stymied in her efforts to learn how many others may have been absolved of violent crimes by the Valor Act.
“I wanted to know how often does this happen,” she said in an interview.
No one could tell her. Massachusetts Trial Court and Probation Department officials told the Globe they do not track Valor Act cases and could not speak to their prevalence.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said his office supports the Valor Act, when properly applied, and similar diversion programs. Fifteen to 20 percent of cases handled in Suffolk end up being diverted rather than prosecuted, he said.
However, he said, the law should say that prosecutors’ objections must be considered by the judge. He also said it should be restricted to veterans who are legitimately traumatized and in need of rehabilitation, “not repeat drunk drivers or someone who had never served a day in the military.”
“That’s not what the Valor Act was intended to do, to apply to someone like Jacob Pridotkas,” Conley said. “Essentially, he avoided accountability.”
Last spring, the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously agreed the Valor Act could be applied to drunken driving cases. Defense attorneys have been citing their experience with the Valor Act online to draw in clients with military records.
Legislators may consider changing the drunken driving loophole as well, said Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee. He said they are working to develop language and consulting district attorneys.
“Senator Rush and I are looking at language to assure that diversion is only available for less serious offenses,” Brownsberger said. “Where there is a victim involved and the crime is serious, diversion is not appropriate.”
He said it’s unclear what balance lawmakers had expected the law to strike and how they envisioned it being applied.
“You’re in a very difficult space, because one of the things that goes along with post-traumatic stress is the potential for anger, and how do we handle that?” he said.
But, Brownsberger added, pointing to the New Bedford case, “This is a case that’s pretty troubling.”