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Collateral Estoppel in a Heroin-Related Criminal Case in Massachusetts

injectionIn Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, a Massachusetts appellate court considered a case involving a conviction for possession of heroin with intent to distribute in violation of MGL c. 94C, § 32(a) & (b). The case arose when a state trooper and sergeant were waiting outside an address in Brockton. The state trooper had a search warrant authorizing him to search for controlled substances at the address and on the defendant’s person. The officers saw a rental car driving up the road. The trooper knew that the defendant’s license was suspended, and so they pulled the car over and arrested the driver (the defendant).

When the defendant came out, the trooper told him that they were there to execute a search warrant and put him in handcuffs. The police searched the defendant and found 14 small bags of heroin, weighing about five grams, in his pants pocket and $1,155 in another pocket.

Later at trial, an expert police officer testified that users usually pay for heroin in cash, but it would be unusual for a user to have 14 bags of heroin at once or a large amount of cash. Plus, users usually have paraphernalia to use the drugs. Dealers usually sell individually wrapped half grams of heroin. The 14 small bags were worth roughly $700 altogether. The police also found keys to the building. They used the keys to enter the outer door as well as the defendant’s individual unit. There, they found 11 1/2 fingers of heroin, scales, bags, and firearms. The heroin weighed more than 100 grams.

The grand jury issued indictments charging the defendant with heroin trafficking with intent to distribute in an amount between 100-200 grams in violation of MGL c. 94C, § 32E(c)(3) and other charges related to firearms and driving on a suspended license. The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the search warrant affidavit didn’t show the police had probable cause.

The judge granted the motion, but while it was pending, a second grand jury issued an indictment for possession with intent to distribute heroin in violation of MGL c. 94C, § 32, based on the five grams of heroin that were found on the defendant’s person. Arraigned 11 days after the judge had granted the motion to suppress, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss on the ground of collateral estoppel. However, this time, the judge who presided over the first motion denied the motion.

The defendant introduced his medication administration record from his time in a House of Correction in 2012 and called an ER physician to testify in his defense. The medical record showed the defendant was prescribed clonidine while incarcerated. The drug is prescribed for narcotic withdrawal and hypertension. He also testified that those with withdrawal are usually daily users.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the judge had made a mistake in denying his motion to dismiss on the basis of collateral estoppel. He argued that the first suppression order covered the drugs that were found on his person as well as the drugs in his apartment.

The appellate court found that collateral estoppel didn’t apply. It explained that collateral estoppel stops issues determined in prior actions between parties from being relitigated. It only applies if the issues in the two proceedings are the same, and the estopped party had enough incentive to vigorously litigate the issue in the first proceeding. Additionally, the party estopped from relitigating must have been a party to the earlier litigation, the law must be identical in both proceedings, and the first proceeding must have culminated in a final judgment on the merits, such that the party estopped had enough incentive to appeal.

Under the collateral estoppel doctrine, if a defendant’s motion to suppress is permitted in an earlier proceeding, and the prosecution fails to appeal, the suppression order is binding on future prosecutions. Dismissing a subsequent indictment isn’t required, however, if there is other evidence independent of what’s been suppressed to prove its case. In this case, the search warrant authorized a search of the defendant’s person. The heroin found was specified in the search warrant, but the motion to suppress asked to suppress the evidence seized from the address, not the evidence seized from the defendant’s person.

For this and several other reasons, the defendant’s conviction was affirmed.

If you are charged in Massachusetts with a drug crime, contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today to discuss the criminal charges. Call us at 617-367-0450 or contact us through this website.

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