In a recent opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated a Massachusetts defendant’s possession of a firearm conviction. The case arose when a state trooper followed the defendant’s vehicle and activated his lights to stop the defendant for driving five miles over the speed limit. The defendant sped, parked, and fled while the police pursued him. When the police reached the defendant, he threw something from his pocket into a dumpster. Officials later recovered a baggie of crack cocaine in the dumpster, and a vehicle search revealed several items, including a pistol with several rounds of inserted ammunition. After reading the defendant his Miranda rights, a police officer inquired about the items in the vehicle, and the defendant stated that he ran because of the drugs and he did not know about the handgun.
Amongst other issues, the defendant argued that under Commonwealth v. Brown, a defendant could only be convicted of possessing a loaded firearm, if the Commonwealth proves that the defendant knew that the firearm was loaded. The defendant argued that this decision is retroactive, and therefore the Commonwealth did not meet their evidentiary burden.
In most cases, Massachusetts courts do not analyze whether a decision applies retroactively or prospectively. Generally, courts retain discretion to apply the decision only prospectively. Courts will look to whether the retroactive application is consistent with the rule and whether it would result in significant “hardship or inequity.” In this case, the court did not find any reason to only apply the decision prospectively. In analyzing the statute, the court found that the element of knowledge required by the lesser included offense of unlawful possession of a loaded firearm, must be evident to convict the defendant of the greater offense. Moreover, the court reasoned that the Commonwealth’s purported hardship from their lack of warning that they needed to prove the knowledge element is outweighed by the risk that the defendant would be unlawfully convicted of a crime.
Further, in reviewing the evidence’s sufficiency, the court must determine whether any rational factfinder could have found the crime’s essential elements beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence is insufficient if the trier of fact must pile inferences to reach a conclusion. In this case, police did not see the defendant handle the weapon, he denied ownership, and there is no way to tell if it was loaded by looking at it. The Commonwealth relied on the presumption that drug dealers generally carry loaded guns. The court found that this explanation was inadequate, and there was no direct evidence supporting their assertion. Therefore, the court vacated the defendant’s conviction.
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