Urine trouble, said prosecutors. SJC flushes charges. 

Court ruling turns on 1851 law’s idea of what’s 'noxious or filthy'

YOU DON’T NEED a good-manners manual to know that relieving yourself all over the floor is a breach of basic decorum, decency, and hygiene. But it’s apparently not criminal. At least not under the terms of an 1851 statute. 

That is the upshot of a Supreme Judicial Court decision issued on Tuesday in which the justices concluded that urine does not qualify as a “noxious or filthy substance,” as envisioned by legislators who drafted the mid-19th century law.

The case stems from the February 2020 arrest of Angel Perez Narvaez in Western Massachusetts. Following a 2:30 a.m. traffic stop, Narvaez was charged with driving under the influence. According to the SJC ruling, he became increasingly belligerent and hostile following his arrest. He was told he had to be processed before he could be released on bail, but Narvaez refused to be fingerprinted and was put in a cell. 

At about 7 a.m., an officer conducting a cell check noticed that Navraez, whose cell had a toilet in it, “had urinated on the floor both inside and outside of the cell.”  

The urine seeped under floor tiles, “potentially causing permanent damage to the sub floor beneath,” according to the criminal complaint against him. Police also hired a cleaning company specializing in hazardous materials to clean his cell because of the risk of bacteria or viruses from bodily fluids. Narvaez was charged with vandalizing with a “noxious or filthy substance,” a crime that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

A Northampton District Court judge granted Narvaez’s motion to dismiss the charge, ruling that urine was not a “noxious or filthy substance” under the 1851 statute, but the state Appeals Court reversed that ruling. Narvaez’s attorney appealed that decision to the SJC. 

While prosecutors argued that urine clearly falls under the broad category of noxious or filthy substances, the SJC ruled that the definition was ambiguous and that the court should consider the broader historical background to the statute and the full context in which the terms were used.

The law was a response to the backlash against the temperance movement, which was gaining steam during the mid-1800s. Prior to the law’s 1851 enactment, several incidents took place in which bottles filled with coal tar were thrown through windows of the homes of temperance supporters.

The statue refers to a person who “wilfully, intentionally and without right throws into, against or upon a dwelling house, office, shop or other building, or vessel, or puts or places therein or thereon oil of vitriol, coal tar or other noxious or filthy substance, with intent unlawfully to injure, deface or defile such dwelling house, office, shop, building or vessel.” 

In considering whether urine should fall under the statute, the SJC said it turned to a legal principle known as ejusdem generis, which is Latin for “of the same kind or class.” In so doing, the court said, when “general words follow specific words in a statutory enumeration, the general words are construed to embrace only objects similar in nature to those objects enumerated by the preceding specific words.” 

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

In other words, “noxious or other filthy substance” is meant to include only filthy substances similar to coal tar or oil of vitriol, a term formerly used for sulphuric acid. The SJC ruled that, its unpleasantness notwithstanding, urine was not of the same class as these substances, and the court concluded the effort to charge Narvaez under the statute didn’t hold water.  

In the unanimous opinion dismissing the charges, written by Associate Justice Elspeth Cypher, the court documented its due diligence in reaching that conclusion. Both coal tar and “oil of vitriol” appear on the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material List, which is part of state environmental regulations, the ruling explained. “Urine is neither listed on the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material List nor similar substantially in form to either of these two substances,” the ruling said.