Homeless Man’s Sentence Upended in Massachusetts

     BOSTON (CN) — A homeless man sentenced to seven months in prison for seeking shelter in buildings that had banned him won sympathy from the highest court in Massachusetts.
     “Our law does not permit punishment of the homeless simply for being homeless,” Associate Justice Geraldine Hines wrote for the court.
     David Magadini had been living on the streets of Great Barrington for 10 years when he was charged in 2014 with trespassing on three privately owned properties. SoCo Creamery, an ice cream shop, was the only purely retail location. Barrington House and Castle Street are both mixed-used buildings that house apartments and businesses.
     Each of the building’s owners had served Magadini over the years with no-trespass orders, and a jury convicted him of seven counts of criminal trespass for his presence in the three buildings.
     At the time of the trial, as noted in ruling, Magadini was 67, unemployed and a college grad.
     He’d grown up in Great Barrington but became homeless after leaving his parents’ home in 2004. A local homeless shelter barred Magadini back in 2007, and he avoided the homeless shelter in Pittsfield, preferring to stay in Great Barrington.
     “I was born here and I intend to stay here,” Magadini testified.
     Magadini spent years living in the large gazebo behind the Great Barrington Town Hall, going as far as to register to vote at the address of the gazebo.
     When the weather gets too cold, though, Magadini admittedly seeks shelter wherever he can find it.
     He wanted the jury to consider necessity as his defense. The maneuver allows for someone be exonerated of a crime if the crime caused less harm than not committing it would have — such as burdening a property owner by sleeping in their hallway rather than freezing to death outside.
     Judge Fredrick Rutberg with the Southern Berkshire District Court barred the jury instruction, however, and sentenced Magadini to seven months in prison — 30 days for each count of trespass.
     Reversing six of those convictions on June 23, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court called Rutberg’s decision on the jury instruction erroneous and prejudicial.
     “Today’s decision confirms that poverty is not a crime in the commonwealth, reinforces the very purposes of the necessity defense and ensures that people in the Commonwealth have a voice and an opportunity to decide how we as a community are going to address the issue of homelessness,” Jessie Rossman, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in a statement.
     Since the SoCo Creamery trespass occurred in June, it was the only charge that the court upheld. The ruling notes that Magadini had been in the ice cream shop’s bathroom for at least 10 minutes, and the spring weather did not pose him imminent danger.
     The Supreme Court disagreed with the trial judge’s finding that Magadini did not show he had attempted all legal alternatives to trespassing.
     “We do not require an actor facing a ‘clear and imminent danger’ to conceptualize all possible alternatives,” Hines wrote for the seven-member court.
     The SJC identified other trial errors as well, including the judge’s refusal to let defense counsel cross-examine the property owners who served as witnesses to determine whether they harbored anti-homeless sentiments.
     The trial judge also permitted an error in the prosecution’s closing arguments: that Magadini stayed in a shelter in the month prior to being charged with criminal trespass. This could have given the jury the wrong impression that Magadini had only recently not been in a shelter.
     The SJC vacated Magadini’s first six convictions and remanded for a new trial. His prison sentence had been stayed pending this appeal.

%d bloggers like this: