Lawmakers Eye Valor Act Changes Amid Concerns Over Breaks for Criminals
A state law critics have referred to as a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for veterans facing criminal charges may soon be amended by state legislators at a time when it’s possibly being used more frequently as a defense in court.
The Massachusetts Valor Act allows lower court judges to send veterans facing criminal charges to counseling programs rather than jail and, since being signed into law in 2012, has been used to dismiss charges ranging from drunk driving to domestic assault and battery.
“We are starting to see it more and more,” said Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. “We didn’t see this as much a couple years ago, but we’re now seeing it more now.”
Early’s office does not track the number of times the Valor Act is used as a defense, but the Leominster area has seen at least two cases in the last year. A 27-year-old Leominster U.S. Army veteran used the law to have domestic violence charges dismissed in Fitchburg District Court for pushing a woman he knew last March. The dismissal was granted after he completed as assessment and treatment as required by the act.
And Leominster police officer Christopher Cunningham, who was arrested in Lunenburg in December on a drunk driving charge, is using the Valor Act as his defense. He appeared in Fitchburg District Court last week where the presiding judge, reading from reports submitted by two counselors who were providing the act’s mandated treatment for Cunningham, decided against dismissing the OUI charge. The counselors indicated in their reports that Cunningham wasn’t “inclined to pursue clinical care or explore the impacts these symptoms have on his mental state or overall decision making.”
The Valor Act’s use in allowing dismissals for charges of operating under the influence has drawn criticism from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but its most negative when used in domestic violence cases.
When charges against Allan T. Santos, a New Bedford resident and U.S. Navy veteran accused of assaulting his girlfriend, were dismissed earlier this year using the Valor Act, state Sen. Michael Rush, the law’s author, said he wanted to change its provisions when it comes to crimes committed against individuals or any other loophole that does not ensure justice.
“It’s something that is very important, but the issue is whether there are gaps where someone, when it comes to sexual assault or domestic violence, might slip through the cracks, especially if they’re a serial perpetrator,” said Leominster state Rep. Natalie Higgins. “We want to make sure they’re absolutely spot on with the right intent for this and make sure it stays that way.”
Higgins said legislators will also have to balance any amendments they might consider against the importance the Valor Act has had for veterans with mental health issues in recent years.
“The bottom line here for us is that we appreciate the intention of the Valor Act, but also acknowledge that it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card that should result in an automatic diversion for anyone under all circumstances,” said Toni K. Troop, director of communications for the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, also known as Jane Doe Inc.
Despite its criticisms, local veterans agents have highlighted the law as a useful tool in making sure people are receiving treatment they might not go out of their way to ask for. F
“It’s supposed to help them treat their PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) rather than be ruined by it, because a lot of the time these people are trying to self-medicate,” said Leominster Veterans’ Services Director Rick Voutour. “They’re proud and don’t want to get counseling... A lot of times they won’t get help on their own and a lot of times you don’t find out about these problems until stuff like this happens.”
Fitchburg Veteran Services Commissioner Michele Marino, like Voutour, said she sees it largely as a benefit for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder linked to their military service.
“It can be a good thing if used properly,” she said. “If someone has a substance-abuse issue because of PTSD they have from serving, then I agree with it.”
Marino added that she doesn’t know anyone personally who’s benefited from the Valor Act, but said she has heard of success stories. Voutour also said that he has not encountered many local veterans being arrested and subsequently using the act to get their charges dismissed.
While Sen. Rush could not be reached for comment to clarify what other changes the law might undergo, any amendments would likely happen after the pending court case of Christopher Cunningham in Leominster.
Cunningham, who has until the first week of April to prove to a Fitchburg judge that he’s serious about seeking treatment for alcohol abuse, is on unpaid leave from the department but is hoping to get his charge dismissed so he can continue working as a police officer, according to his affidavit.
According to interim Leominster Police Chief Michael Goldman, there is no stipulation in the law preventing Cunningham from continuing to serve as a police officer, despite having recently been arrested.
Commenting on just the law itself, Goldman said he is in favor of diverting charges of veterans in the way the Valor Act does when “applied appropriately.”
“I would be concerned about how it’s handled in domestic violence cases. With someone who gets arrested and has a previous history or domestic violence tendencies, it takes a long time and a lot of counseling to attack that problem,” he said.
Noting its use as a defense in domestic violence charges, District Attorney Early said the appropriateness of the Valor Act has to be determined on a “case-by-case” basis.
“Can anything be used or taken advantage of? Yeah,” he said. “But it has been used in domestic violence cases where the victim is on board. They’ve told us these are people that wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the effects of their service.”
Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53