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SJC ruling reinforces foreign nationals’ rights in crime cases

By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / January 21, 2011

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Foreign nationals, including those here illegally, have the right under international law to be in contact with diplomats from their home country when facing criminal charges in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday.

The SJC also said foreign nationals convicted of a crime can now seek a new trial if they can prove they were not informed about this right and that the lack of information played a role in their conviction.

One prosecutor said the decision has the potential to unleash a torrent of costly litigation. “There is no limit to this,’’ said Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, who said he opposes the SJC’s unanimous ruling. “We will be flooded with motions for a new trial.’’

Blodgett said the Vienna Convention is a treaty among sovereign nations, yet the SJC has made the convention part of the fabric of individual rights in Massachusetts. He said he will ask lawmakers to reverse the decision.

However, Boston immigration attorney Gerald Rovner, who was not a party to the litigation, said the ruling reinforces rules that have long been on the books for the Massachusetts criminal justice system and for each state.

Rovner said that under the Vienna Convention, a foreign diplomat can make sure a citizen is being held under humane conditions, but cannot directly influence a criminal case. The SJC decision does not alter those rules, he said.

“I don’t see that this case, generally, is going to create substantially greater rights than already exist,’’ Rovner said. “I don’t see that this is going to be a major burden on the trial courts.’’

In the 7-to-0 ruling written by Justice Robert Cordy, the SJC noted that the United States ratified the Vienna Convention in 1969. The SJC also said the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in 2009 that the United States has not complied with the Vienna Convention’s rules on diplomatic contact when dealing with Mexican nationals.

Massachusetts, Cordy wrote, will take steps now to bring the state into compliance: “In order to enable the full effect to be given to [the Vienna Convention], we conclude that the notifications it requires must be incorporated into the protocols of the state and local law enforcement agencies of Massachusetts.’’

Cordy said foreign nationals will have the right to seek a new trial if they were not made fully aware of their rights under the Vienna Convention.

But while setting the new standard, the SJC concluded that the man who brought the lawsuit will not benefit.

Amaury Gautreaux pleaded guilty in Lawrence District Court to multiple criminal charges and was subsequently deported to his native Dominican Republic.

The SJC said Gautreaux failed to show that contact with a Dominican diplomat would have helped him. The court also said that Gautreaux was given a court-appointed lawyer who negotiated a favorable plea deal.

Gautreaux’s attorney, Sarah Clymer, said she was disappointed that her client lost. But she lauded the court for its ruling and suggested it is in the best interest of Americans to support it.

The convention is reciprocal, she said. When “our citizens . . . are traveling abroad, we want [foreign governments] to respect our rights,’’ she said. “We better respect their rights over here.’’

John Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.