Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Declines to Vacate Cambridge Drug Dealer’s School Zone Conviction

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today refused to dismiss a Cambridge drug dealer’s conviction for a school zone violation, despite the Legislature’s recent decision to reduce school zones to a distance that would not have applied to the defendant’s crime.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Walter Thompson.

Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of distributing cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school zone.  In July of 2008, Cambridge drug detectives were conducting surveillance when they saw a man and a woman sitting on a curb in a convenience store parking lot.  The detectives watched them as they counted change in their open hands and looked around, in a furtive manner, in all directions.  The woman then made a call from a payphone that was attached to the convenience store.  Following a short conversation, the woman hung up and she and the man continued to look up and down the street.  The woman began pacing back and forth.  Ten minutes later, the defendant rode his bicycle through the parking lot and said something to the woman.  She quickly followed the defendant and they stopped at a nearby house, where they appeared to exchange items.  The transaction occurred 500 feet from a school.  The woman returned to her companion and they started walking quickly toward Harvard Square.  Meanwhile, the defendant began riding his bicycle in the opposite direction.

The detectives followed the woman and her companion and confronted them.  The man dropped a bag on the ground that contained a small amount of crack cocaine, which was selling for between 40 and 60 dollars.  The woman was searched and had a glass smoking pipe on her person.  They were both arrested.  Meanwhile, another group of police officers stopped the defendant, who was in possession of two folds of cash, with one containing $45 and the other containing $40.  The defendant was arrested.

On appeal, the defendant first argued that the evidence did not support a finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he had sold crack cocaine.  The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the defendant’s convictions were supported by the observations of the Cambridge detectives.  Evidence of the hand-to-hand transaction, combined with the buyers’ possession of the crack and the defendant’s possession of an amount of money that corresponded with the crack’s value, would have easily allowed the jury to infer that the defendant sold the drugs to the woman.

The defendant’s second argument was that he should not face punishment for his school zone conviction.  After the defendant was convicted but before his appeal was final, the Legislature amended the school zone statute to prohibit the distribution of drugs within 300 feet of a school (whereas the original statute prohibited drug dealing within 1,000 feet of a school).  Because the defendant sold drugs approximately 500 feet from a school, his conduct was not criminal under the amended school zone statute.  The Court declined to vacate the defendant’s school zone conviction, concluding that the Legislature did not intend to provide relief to defendants who had been convicted of a school zone violation prior to the statute’s amendment.  Had the defendant’s trial been delayed until after the amendment was enacted, he would have been acquitted of the school zone charge and excused from serving a two-year mandatory minimum jail sentence.