Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Says Police Lacked Probable Cause to Believe Juvenile Caught with 13 Bags of Marijuana Intended to Distribute

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that the police lacked probable cause to charge a juvenile with a drug dealing offense after he was caught with 13 individually wrapped bags of marijuana.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ilya I. 

The juvenile was charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana following an interaction with Boston police officers in June of 2012.  Officers assigned to the Boston Police Department’s youth violence strike force were conducting surveillance in Codman Square in Dorchester.  In the late afternoon, the officers saw a group of four black teenagers, including the juvenile, in the vicinity.  A couple approached the group of teens and spoke briefly to them.  Immediately thereafter, two of the teenagers walked away with the couple while the other two teenagers stayed where they were and looked up and down the street.  After a short walk, the couple and the two teenagers who accompanied them shared a “brief interaction” and the teenagers then began walking back to their friends who had stayed behind.

The police officers believed they had witnessed a drug deal.  They watched the four teenagers meet up and walk toward a car.  The juvenile looked back at the officers several times as he walked away.  The four teens got into the car and drove away.  The police quickly stopped them and smelled unburnt marijuana coming from the car.  Because the driver did not have a valid driver’s license and one of the passengers could not identify himself, the officers ordered all of the occupants out of the car.  Officers pat frisked the juvenile and found, in his groin area, 13 small bags of marijuana contained in a sandwich bag.

The juvenile filed a motion to dismiss his case, arguing that the police observations and recovery of the 13 bags of marijuana did not establish probable cause to believe that he intended to distribute the drugs.  A juvenile court judge agreed and dismissed the case.  The Appeals Court reversed, but the Supreme Judicial Court, by a vote of 4-3, agreed with the juvenile court judge and affirmed the dismissal.

The majority opinion started its analysis by pointing out that a small amount of marijuana is consistent with personal use.  In this case, the police did not specify the quantity of the marijuana and did not state that the amounts contained in the 13 bags were generally offered for sale.  Additionally, there was nothing distinctive about the packaging to suggest that the bags were intended for distribution.  The police did not state that they saw an exchange between the two teenagers and the couple, and it was not clear whether the juvenile was one of the teenagers who interacted with the couple.  While the juvenile may have appeared nervous, the Court reasoned that simply possessing marijuana (with no intent to distribute) might have caused such a demeanor.  Interestingly, the Court referenced the 2008 change in Massachusetts law that decriminalized the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and said it was mindful of the “clear policy goals” of the amended law.  The Court suggested that where a juvenile possesses a small amount of marijuana, there would need to be a compelling case to establish that he intended to distribute it.

Three justices dissented, arguing that the majority had erroneously considered each fact of the case standing alone to find a lack of probable cause, rather than considering the facts in combination with each other.  The dissent argued that the majority had failed to recognize that probable cause must be determined from the totality of the circumstances.

Since the Legislature decriminalized the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in 2008, the Supreme Judicial Court has delivered a series of pro-defense opinions regarding marijuana cases.  Interestingly, the four most recently appointed justices, who all joined the SJC after the marijuana law changed, were in the majority in this case.  The three most senior justices, who were all on the bench before the marijuana law changed, dissented.