Military Veterans Criminal Defense Lawyers and The VALOR Act

More often than we would like, military veterans come home from serving our country and end up in the criminal court system. There are a number of different reasons for this, including a lack of services and resources for veterans returning home from war. While there are initiatives and people working to address housing, medical, mental health, and other issues facing veterans, Massachusetts has also recently decided to initiate a special program for those who do ultimately become involved in the criminal justice system.

Specifically, on May 31, 2012, the governor signed “An Act Relative to Veteran’s Access, Livelihood, Opportunity, and Resources,” into law. Among other functions, the law, commonly referred to as the VALOR Act, provides veterans with an opportunity to go into a pre-trial diversion program rather than going through the traditional justice system. A pre-trial diversion program is a type of informal disposition that involves the referral of a defendant to rehabilitative programs in lieu of criminal prosecution. A defendant’s criminal charges will generally be dismissed upon completion of the programming, or upon meeting the agreed-upon conditions. Such programs are designed to promote rehabilitation and minimize the stigma that attaches upon conviction. The main theory behind the program set out by the VALOR Act is that veterans, who have become emotionally and/or mentally scarred as a result of service in the military, should be given some additional consideration when they are accused of a crime.

Not all veterans qualify for the program, however, and each case must be examined before the diversion program can be made an option. Specifically, the court must first determine whether the defendant is eligible to participate in the program. To be eligible for the evaluation, the defendant must:

  1. Be a veteran, an active service member, or a person “with military history,” meaning that the defendant was honorably discharged from a branch of the United States Armed Forces (the specific definition of the term “veteran” is laid out under G. L. c. 4, § 7);
  2. Charged with an offense for which a term of imprisonment may be imposed;
  3. Have no prior adult convictions; and
  4. Not have outstanding warrants, continuances, appeals, or criminal cases pending before any courts of the Commonwealth or any other state or of the United States.

If a defendant meets these qualifications, a District Court judge has the authority to offer a continuance – generally 2 weeks – for the defendant to get an evaluation by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services, or another state or federal agency with knowledge and experience of veterans affairs (the court also has the option of granting a continuance for an evaluation of defendants that are preliminarily determined not to be eligible for pretrial diversion). The purpose of the evaluation is to provide the court with treatment options available to the defendant. The evaluation should include some sort of assessment as to whether or not the defendant would benefit from participation in a diversion program.

Once the evaluation is completed, it is provided to the court. After reviewing the evaluation, the court must then consult with the District Attorney’s Office about the proper course of action – in other words, whether the defendant should be given the opportunity to participate in a diversion program. If the District Attorney’s Office consents, the court then has the authority to take whatever action it deems appropriate, including referring the defendant to a pretrial diversion program and setting various conditions, to be monitored by the probation department. Participation in the program may be conditioned upon dismissal of the charges if the defendant complies with all of the conditions of the program, or a continuance without a finding.

The diversion program provides veterans with a chance to rehabilitate by being placed into a program that is specialized to their needs, such as mental health treatment, an anger management program, or substance abuse treatment. The hope is that participation in the program will help veterans function better in society, and stay out of the criminal justice system in the future. While the VALOR Act provides a second chance for those who have had no prior convictions, it is not necessarily easy. Defendants must adhere to all of the conditions of the diversion program. If a defendant fails to comply, then the case will be returned to the trial list and the case will proceed like any other criminal matter. It is therefore very important for a defendant to have an attorney who is not only familiar with the VALOR Act, but who will also make sure that the conditions set by the court are appropriate and manageable.

Attorney Daniel Cappetta is a criminal defense attorney who has experience representing veterans and has successfully helped clients navigate the VALOR Act in the past. If you or a loved one is a veteran and facing criminal charges, Attorney Cappetta can help guide you through the eligibility determination, the evaluation, and the pre-trial diversion programming provided for by the VALOR Act. Call him today for a free consultation.