School Zone Violations in Massachusetts

Drug sale and distribution charges in Massachusetts can be treated more harshly based on factors other than the type and amount of drug in question. The context of the sale or distribution can make a big difference. For example, a “school zone violation” is a sentencing enhancement for people who commit drug crimes beyond mere possession. A school zone violation requires the court to impose a mandatory minimum term of incarceration that begins only upon the expiration of the sentence for the drug crime with which it is associated.

The recent appellate decision Commonwealth v. Bradley considered an amendment to the school zone violation law. The case arose when the police received a search warrant in 2010 to search the defendant’s dorm room, where they found marijuana. The dorm room was about 700 ft. from a preschool. Accordingly, the defendant was charged with possession of a class D substance with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of a preschool facility (a school zone violation.)

Two years later, the governor signed a bill that reduced the radius of the school zone from 1000 to 300 feet. The defendant’s case had not yet been adjudicated. He asked for his school zone violation to be dismissed, since his actions were committed 400 feet outside the school zone as described in the amendment. He argued that the change in the law should apply retroactively to cases that had not been decided before 2012.

The judge asked the appellate court whether the new law should apply retroactively to the defendant’s actions, which had been charged but not adjudicated. The appellate court explained that an amendment to an existing statute is an “implicit repeal” where the amendment is not consistent with an earlier provision. Although it is presumed when an offense is committed that a new penal statute is presumed to be prospective, this is not an absolute presumption. The question for the court is whether prospective application would be repugnant considering the whole of the statute.

In this case, the Legislature had not clearly expressed it intention that the section would apply retroactively. There was not language regarding the timeframe for the statute to applied. There were no other provisions that would make prospective application “absurd” as there had been in other cases.

The appellate court explained that “repugnant” means irreconcilable with or contrary to; in this case, the court would have to look at the legislative purpose of the statute. It does not matter, for purposes of the sentencing enhancement, whether the defendant knows he is in a school zone. The original legislative purpose of this enhancement was to protect kids from drug dealers by creating drug-free zones at schools. Studies showed, however, that the 1000 ft. radius had an unfair effect in certain urban communities –resulting in most of the state’s black and Latino urban residents facing longer mandatory minimums than white rural residents who had done the same thing. Additionally, the vast majority of school zone cases in Massachusetts didn’t actually involve sale of drugs to minors.

The Legislature was aware of these facts when it enacted the amendment at issue in this case. The radius was reduced from 1000 to 300 feet because of the disparate impact on minority citizens and the failure to better protect school children. Accordingly, the appellate court explained it would be “repugnant” to the statutory context to apply the amendment prospectively, prolonging the unfair impact.

The appellate court held that the amendment did apply to all cases in which a school zone violation was alleged, but no guilty plea had been accepted, nor conviction entered as of August 2012, when the amendment went into effect.

If you have been charged with a drug crime such as possession, sale or distribution, you should contact an attorney with experience in these types of cases. Failure to consult with an attorney can lead to devastating consequences including incarceration and steep fines. 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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