Commonwealth v. Martin: Primary Caretaker Statute Does Not Violate the Equal Protection Clause
In 2018, the Massachusetts legislature passed the comprehensive Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform. This legislation included a statute, known as the primary caretaker statute, which allows judges to consider whether a defendant is a primary caretaker for a dependent child as a factor in sentencing. M.G.L. c. 279, § 6B. A defendant is required to file a motion requesting this consideration. The judge then must first establish that the defendant is a primary caretaker, and unless a period of incarceration is required by law, the judge may then consider alternatives to incarceration when sentencing the defendant.
The constitutionality of the primary caretaker statute was one of several issues in Commonwealth v. Martin. In that case, the defendant was charged with Operating Under the Influence (OUI) causing serious bodily injury and leaving the scene of property damage. She was acquitted of the OUI charge and found guilty of leaving the scene. The judge sentenced the defendant to two and a half years, with six months to be served and two years to be suspended. The defendant, a single mother of an 8-year-old, filed a motion to revise and revoke the sentence, asking the court to apply the primary caretaker statute. The district court judge denied her motion and ruled, sua sponte, that the statute was violative of the equal protection clause, as it discriminated against individuals who did not have children. The defendant then appealed.
In its recent decision, the Appeals Court reversed the district court’s ruling. The court held that the statute “burdens no fundamental right, [and] applies no suspect classification.” As such, analysis of the equal protection question was subject to rational basis review, meaning that the statute need only be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. The Court went on to discuss the well-established negative impacts on the lives of children whose primary caretaker is incarcerated, such as poverty, problems with school and other caregivers, and other damaging effects that occur when a parent is suddenly removed from a child’s life. Thus, the court found that the prevention or minimization of these impacts through granting judges discretion in sentencing “is rationally related to the Commonwealth’s legitimate interest in the care and protection of children.”
If you have been arrested for an OUI related charge and have dependent children for whom you are the primary caregiver, it is important that you have your case evaluated by an experienced attorney before moving forward. Call the Law Offices of Joseph D. Bernard for a case evaluation, free of charge or obligation.