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Application of the Crime Bill to Massachusetts Cocaine Trafficking Law

cocaineIn a recent Massachusetts appellate case, the court considered whether certain aspects of the Crime Bill applied to drug crimes. The defendant had been charged before the effective date of the law but convicted after it. The case arose when he was observed by cops performing what they thought were drug deals on the street. When they searched him, they found eight bags of cocaine weighing 28.14 grams.

In 2011, he was indicted for violating MGL c. 94C, § 32E(b)(2). This was a second-tier violation involving cocaine trafficking in the amount of 28 grams-100 grams. For a violation, the law required judges to sentence a defendant to at least five years, with at most 20 years imprisonment.

The Crime Bill was enacted in 2012 and changed § 32E by upping the weights that set the first tier to 18 grams-36 grams. Previously, the upper weight for this tier had been 28 grams. Judges were required to sentence defendants convicted of a first-tier offense to a minimum sentence of two years.

The second tier was also changed so that it involved trafficking in 36-100 grams and at least 3 1/2 years imprisonment. If the defendant were convicted of the amended section 32E(b), he would only be guilty under the first tier of cocaine trafficking.

Before trial, the defendant asked the lower court to apply the changes to Section 32E(b)(1) and (2). He later renewed his request. The judge allowed the motion, and Massachusetts appealed. It argued that the judge’s order operated as a dismissal, since most of the indictment charged the defendant with second-tier trafficking.

The appellate court explained that in a prior case, it had interpreted that the retroactivity provision meant that specific mandatory minimum sentence reductions would need to be applied retroactively to someone who’d been charged with committing a drug offense before the law’s effective date. The defendant in that case wasn’t tried, sentenced, or convicted until after the date.

The court in that case had explained that a primary purpose of the Crime Bill was to lower the sentences that would be served in connection with certain drug crimes. In this case, the court contrasted the earlier case with the facts at hand; the defendant here wanted to get benefits from the changes, not only with regard to sentencing. What he sought was to apply substantive changes related to the trafficking crime for which he’d already been indicted.

The defendant argued that the retroactivity provision in section 48 showed a clear legislative intent to apply the provisions of section 21 retroactively to him. The appellate court disagreed. It explained that section 48 focused on offenders with mandatory minimum imprisonment terms and was focused on offenders’ eligibility for probation, work release, and parole. The programs aren’t available until mandatory minimums are served. This was different from the reconfiguration of trafficking weights, which had no direct connection to eligibility for parole, work release, or probation.

The appellate court concluded that even though the retroactive application of the increased drug weights might advance a goal of the Crime Bill, applying it only going forward wouldn’t go against its terms.

The appellate court determined that the reduction in the mandatory minimum sentence for violations of section 32E(b)(2) applied retroactively to the defendant, while section 21’s redefinition of maximum and minimum weights for trafficking didn’t.

If you are charged with a drug crime in Massachusetts, 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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