A Supreme Judicial Court justice handed Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins a major victory Monday, ruling that Boston Municipal Court Judge Richard Sinnott III had “no authority” to force her office to push ahead with the prosecution of a Straight Pride Parade protester last week.
Justice Frank M. Gaziano, a former state and federal prosecutor, wrote that Sinnott’s insistence that prosecutors arraign the protester, Rod Webber, infringed upon the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive branch, in this case the prosecutor’s office.
“The prosecutor’s sole authority to determine which cases to prosecute, and when not to pursue a prosecution, has been affirmed repeatedly by this court since the beginning of the 19th century,’’ Gaziano wrote, citing cases that dated back to 1806.
Rollins filed an emergency petition with the SJC on Sept. 4, arguing that Sinnott had overstepped his authority when he refused to accept a prosecutor’s bid to drop the disorderly conduct charges against Webber and other protesters arrested in clashes with police in downtown Boston on Aug. 31.
At a news conference Monday, Rollins hailed Gaziano’s ruling as a “beautiful decision” and denounced Sinnott’s stance as “a colossal waste of time.”
“Anyone who has gone to law school knows there is a separation of powers,” Rollins said. “We are very, very happy that Justice Gaziano, using hundreds of years of precedent, essentially agreed with what we proposed.”
Sinnott, through a Trial Court spokeswoman, declined to comment. Last week, Sinnott also rejected several motions to dismiss charges against the protesters on the condition that they perform community service. At the same time, he accepted most motions by prosecutors to drop charges by filing a “nolle prosequi,” which is Latin for “we shall no longer prosecute.”
The SJC decision ruled only on whether Sinnott had the authority to prevent prosecutors from filing a “nolle prosequi” motion.
Police officers had cheered Sinnott’s hard-line stance, but the legal community was outraged, particularly when the judge cited a lawyer representing one of the protesters for contempt of court. On Sept. 4, S innott had Susan Church handcuffed and sent to a holding cell after she argued that he was not authorized to prevent prosecutors from not pursuing charges.
On Monday, attorneys and civil rights advocates cheered the court ruling for upholding the autonomy of Rollins, a district attorney who was elected last year on a pledge to stop prosecuting “low-level” nonviolent offenses.
“This decision is important both to the rule of law and for separation of powers,” said Matt Segal, legal director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union. “When the people elect prosecutors with a mandate not to prosecute or dismiss certain cases that are not in the public interest, those prosecutors should know they’re going to be able to carry that mandate.”
Michael Leary, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said he was disappointed by the decision, saying it marked a setback for officers who have been criticized by some lawmakers for how they handled the protest. Four officers were injured during the parade and video footage showed protesters yelling in officer’s faces, at times even lunging at them and pushing them. Some officers responded by firing pepper spray.
“Morale is probably at an all-time low between being used as political pawns and everyone looking down on the police,” Leary said. “It’s just not a good time to be a police officer.”
Leary said Gaziano’s decision supports Rollins in her overall efforts to drop criminal charges in certain cases, a philosophy that has frustrated many officers.
“It goes against everything we stand for and believe in,” he said. “We still have four officers who got injured and what does this tell them? [Rollins] was elected to prosecute, to uphold the laws not dismiss the law.”
Rollins stressed that eight of the 36 people arrested face criminal charges for assault.
“If you’re violent, you will be held accountable by this administration,” Rollins said. “Any suggestion that this administration does not take seriously violence against law enforcement or the community is false.”
Rollins did say that videos of the event showed “questionable” behavior by some officers who fired pepper spray at protesters. That drew a sharp rejoinder from Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, who said shortly after her news conference that officers were met with “an unending stream of verbal taunts, jeers, profanities, obscenities, and physical assaults.”
“While much has been made of the actions taken by my officers during the Straight Pride Parade, let me say without hesitation that I could not be more proud or impressed with the high levels of restraint and professionalism displayed by my officers,” he said in a statement.
Gross said that any use of nonlethal force will be investigated to make sure officers followed internal guidelines.
In her petition to the SJC, Rollins said that Sinnott’s decision would mean that Webber, the protester involved in the case at issue, would have a criminal record that could compromise his future and asked that the charges against him be expunged. Gaziano agreed to do so.
In an interview, Webber said he was relieved that the decision would allow for other protesters to have their records cleared.
“This entire thing was a kangaroo court . . . an utter clown show,” Webber said.
He said he was arrested after using a megaphone to tell protesters to calm down.
“This whole thing was about him being able to express himself, to express his opinion about things that are important to the Commonwealth and the country,” Webber’s lawyer, Christopher Basso said.
During Webber’s hearing, Sinnott said that prosecutors were violating the state’s victim rights law by dropping the case without consulting the parade organizers. But Gaziano, who was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker, said disorderly conduct is an offense against the public, not a specific victim. Even if there had been a victim, Gaziano said, it does not give a judge the authority to deny a prosecutor’s right not to pursue charges.
Church, the lawyer who was cited for contempt, said the decision pushed back against what was clearly “a politicization” of the courts.
“There is this resistance to Rachael Rollins because she represents a change maker in Suffolk County and there’s this judge who obviously disagrees with her political platform and as a result he has taken on this fight,” she said “I think that was ill advised considering how clear the law was.”