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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Jail Detainee’s Urine Not a ‘Noxious or Filthy Substance’

by David M. Reutter

In an opinion issued on November 22, 2022, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that urine is not a “noxious or filthy substance.” Therefore, the Court affirmed dismissal of vandalism charges against a detainee for urinating on a jail’s floor.

Angel O. Perez Narvaez was stopped by law enforcement and arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in the early morning hours of February 10, 2020. He was uncooperative during arrest and booking, refusing to take a breathalyzer or be fingerprinted. He was taken to Hampshire House of Correction, placed in a cell and told he had to cooperate with the booking process before he could be released on bail.

At around 7 a.m. that morning, a guard performed a cell check and noticed Perez Narvaez had “made a complete mess of (his) cell,” the Court later recalled. He had urinated on the floor both inside and outside his cell; based on the location of the toilet “it (was) apparent (Perez Narvaez) purposely urinated through the cell bars on to the floor outside the cell.” The urine had “seeped into the cracks between the floor tiles, potentially causing permanent damage to the subfloor beneath.” The jail hired a company specializing in cleaning hazardous fluids and spills to scour Perez Narvaez’s cell.

He was charged under Mass. G.L.C. 266, § 103, with vandalizing the jail with a “noxious or filthy substance.” He moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of probable cause. The trial court granted the motion, and the Commonwealth appealed. The Appeals Court reversed in an unpublished opinion. The Supreme Judicial Court then granted Perez Narvaez’s application for further appellate review.

The Commonwealth argued that urine is so “disgustingly dirty” that it is a “noxious or filthy substance” and said the argument should end there. But the Court disagreed, stating the terms “noxious or filthy substance” may have “different meanings dependent upon contemporary conditions, the connection in which it is used, and the result intended to be accomplished.”

The law in question was enacted in 1851, in response to the “anti-temperance” movement, which fought back against those who “sought and eventually obtained a prohibition on the sale of alcohol,” the Court noted. In two 1847 incidents, it detailed, coal tar was thrown into the homes of Temperance Movement supporters by anti-temperance protestors. Similar incidents involved not tar but “oil of vitriol” – concentrated sulfuric acid.

Lawmakers passed G.L.C. 266, § 103 after this. But that historical background alone was not enough to define what those lawmakers intended the phrase “noxious or filthy substance” to encompass. For that, the Court looked to provisions following § 103, which specifically list coal tar and oil of vitriol. Under the statutory canon of interpretation of ejusdem generis, those “necessarily were intended to limit the more general term ‘other noxious or filthy substance.’”

Therefore, the Court said urine is not a “noxious or filthy substance” within the meaning of the law. The appellate court’s opinion was vacated, and the trial court’s judgment was affirmed. Perez Narvaez was represented by Brookline attorney Rachel T. Rose. See: Commonwealth v. Perez Narvaez, 490 Mass. 807 (2022).

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