Conspiracy and Double Jeopardy in Massachusetts

The double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that nobody can be placed in jeopardy twice for the same criminal offense. In other words, it prohibits duplicative convictions — more than one conviction for the same course of conduct. However, not all cases in which there are multiple charges for the same set of facts violate this prohibition.

A recent appellate case illustrates how this constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy works in Massachusetts. The case arose out of a defendant’s conviction for conspiracy to violate drug laws, which was entered as part of a plea, and his conviction for distribution of cocaine. The defendant argued these two convictions arose out of the same facts and were essentially punishing the same offense.

In this case, an informant had infiltrated a narcotics distribution ring. He contacted Wisdom Ellerbee to buy cocaine. Ellerbee told him a place where they could meet to finish the sale. The informant went there and Ellerbee drove up. The defendant was in the front seat next to him.

Ellerbee gave the bag of cocaine to the informant and they talked about the cost. The informant gave the bag to the defendant, who took some cocaine out of it before giving it back to him. The informant paid for the cocaine. The informant taped the transaction with a hidden recorder.

The defendant argued that this case was similar to an earlier case in which the court had determined that conspiracy could not be proved solely with evidence that showed he was an accomplice to his brother’s sexual assault of a victim. In that case, the court explained that a conspiracy conviction punishes an unlawful agreement that happens before the substantive crime.

The defendant here argued that the facts supplied by the State described no agreement or conspiracy other than what was implied by his participation in the cocaine sale (for which he was also convicted.) He argued that this violated the prohibition against double jeopardy.

The appeals court explained that the evidence tended to show there was an agreement between the defendant and Ellerbee that preexisted the recorded transaction that formed the basis for his distribution conviction.

The court pointed out that the informant had originally contacted Ellerbee. The defendant’s presence seemed to arise based on an agreement that was formed before or at the time the defendant decided to join Ellerbee in his car to meet the informant.

The traditional rule in Massachusetts is that a defendant can be punished for two crimes that arise from the same conduct so long as each crime requires proof of an element that the other doesn’t. Conspiracy, for example, is distinct from a substantive offense like drug trafficking, because it does not require the prosecutor to prove the substantive crime was actually completed.

In this case, the appeals court explained that a conspiracy charge could be duplicative if the circumstances under each charge were the exact same offense. For example, the crime of accessory before the fact to murder for hire is the same conduct as conspiracy.

However, the evidence in this case suggested that there was a pre-existing agreement that formed the basis for a conspiracy charge. This agreement was in addition to the defendant’s participation in the sale itself, which formed the basis for the distribution charge. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s order denying the motion to vacate the conviction.

If you are arrested for drug sales or another crime, the prosecutor will try to build a strong case against you using multiple theories, such as conspiracy and trafficking, as described above. A Boston criminal defense attorney with experience in these types of cases can mount a strong defense on your behalf. Contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today to discuss your Massachusetts drug crime charges. Call us at 617-367-0450 or through this website.

More Blog Posts:

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Defendant in Mandatory Minimum Case Alleyne v. U.S., Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 19, 2013
Court of Appeals Ruling Affirms Prior Conviction Record Insufficient to Establish Identity, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 11, 2013

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