Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules the School/Park Zone Statute Does Not Apply to Private Playgrounds

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today that a defendant who was accused of dealing drugs within 100 feet of a private playground did not qualify for prosecution under the school/park zone law that adds an additional two-year jail term onto drug dealers’ sentences.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Gopaul.

The defendant was charged in Marlborough District Court with, among other things, selling marijuana to an undercover police officer.  The drug deal occurred within 100 feet of an outdoor playground area at a private apartment complex, which caused the defendant to be charged with violating the school/park zone statute.  The school/park zone statute prohibits drug dealing within 100 feet of a “public park or playground.”  While the playground sits on private property, it is not surrounded by a fence, which allows anyone access to the playground without having to open a gate or a door.  The playground is not protected by “no trespassing” signs.  The playground has typical equipment used by children, including a climbing structure, a slide, and four swings.

The defendant filed a pretrial motion to dismiss the park zone charge, arguing that the law may only punish those defendants who deal drugs in the vicinity of a public playground.  The Marlborough District Court judge initially denied the defendant’s motion, reasoning that the law intended to protect children and therefore private playgrounds where children play are protected.  However, the district court judge then sought the Appeals Court’s guidance, asking whether a private playground qualifies as a protected area under the law.

The case turned on the dull grammatical question of whether the work “public” modified both “park” and “playground.”  It is clear from the language in the statute that a park needs to be public, but it is less clear whether a playground also needs to be public.  Applying the principle of statutory construction, the Appeals Court concluded that “public” was intended to modify “park” and “playground” and the private playground in this case therefore did not qualify.  In reaching its decision, the Appeals Court painstakingly noted the lack of a comma between the words “public” and “playground” and reviewed the federal school zone statute (which was a precursor to the state law), which defines “playground” as any outdoor facility that is intended for recreation and open to the public.  The Appeals Court also pointed out that any ambiguity in the language of statutes must be resolved in the defendant’s favor.

The opinion in this case is about as dry as they come.  The discussion of statutory construction will bore you to tears.  But the outcome of the case is incredibly significant to the defendant in this case and all other defendants who have been similarly charged with committing drug dealing offenses near a private playground.  The Appeals Court decision saved the defendant from a potential two-year mandatory minimum jail sentence.

The Legislature likely did not envision the result reached by the Appeals Court today.  The school/park zone statute is intended to protect children from exposure to drug dealers.  There is no reason to believe that the Legislature intended to deprive children playing at private playgrounds from the same protection as children who play on public playgrounds.  It will be interesting to see if the Legislature will now amend the statute and eliminate its ambiguous language.