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Editorial: Mists still surround Quabbin Reservoir trespassing case

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Trespassing is typically a low-grade crime, but when it takes place around midnight at the Quabbin Reservoir — a major source of Massachusetts’ drinking water — being where you’re not supposed to be should be taken seriously.

A court case is testing the logic of that.

The Massachusetts State Police is appealing a decision by an Eastern Hampshire District Court clerk magistrate not to bring charges against seven people allegedly found trespassing at the reservoir May 14. Behind the appeal is the belief that the magistrate’s action does not adequately protect the Quabbin.

State police spokesman David Procopio said the courts and police have had an understanding that when trespassing occurs at a critical infrastructure site such as the Quabbin, a criminal complaint is issued, resulting in an arraignment. In other words, past practice has held that a case such as this at least gets to be heard in court.

Not so — at least yet — in this instance.

Was there a breach of this understanding? We may never know. The show-cause hearing that resulted from the incident and led to the court’s decision was, like every other show-cause hearing, closed to the public.

A lack of details has led to some important but unanswered questions about court efficacy, police tactics and whether race is playing a role in how the incident is being handled.

Here’s what we do know: On May 14, state police officers allegedly witnessed seven people, around midnight, walking from the Quabbin toward their vehicles. The alleged trespassers, who were all Pakistani, Saudi Arabian or from Singapore, said they were recent chemical engineering graduates from the University of Massachusetts and Smith College. They told police they were there out of educational and career interest.

Police ran a multi-agency investigation into their backgrounds before allowing them to leave the reservoir, but they were summonsed to appear at a show-cause hearing at the Belchertown court.

Because no one in the group was arrested, their identities are not part of the public record. At the show-cause hearing, the clerk magistrate declined to press criminal charges and continued the hearing for six months. This means if the seven people keep out of trouble for that long, the case will be dismissed.

With scant details, this situation asks the public to have faith in the courts and the police. Yet the two don’t agree on the seriousness of what transpired.

Unless the appeal is successful, there is no way for the public to know whether the courts were cavalier in refusing to bring charges or if the police are pressing for a conviction in a case that just does not warrant that sort of punishment.

But we should know. Public drinking water is at stake.

Show-cause hearings are not public. The names of people involved in this incident were not made public because an arrest never occurred. There is good reason for these privacy measures: they help protect victims and innocent people.

Yet the public’s natural interest in the safety of our water supply deserves a more in-depth response in regard to what happened that night and why the police can’t let it go.

Our concerns can be allayed without naming the people involved and we should all have peace of mind when it comes to our water.

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