Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules that Recently Reduced Drug Trafficking Thresholds Cannot Be Applied Retroactively

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that the recent Crime Bill’s reduction of drug trafficking threshold weights does not apply to defendants who were arrested before the law passed but whose cases were still pending after the law was enacted.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Didas.

The defendant was charged with trafficking cocaine following his arrest by Somerville police officers.  On May 3, 2011, Somerville cops saw the defendant apparently participating in drug transactions.  When the officers searched the defendant, they found eight bags containing a total of 28.14 grams of cocaine.  The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office indicted the defendant in October of 2011 and charged him with trafficking between 28 and 100 grams of cocaine (the second level of cocaine trafficking), which carried a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.

Almost one year later, on August 2, 2012, the Legislature enacted “An Act relative to sentencing and improving law enforcement tools” (also known as the Crime Bill).  This new statute made important changes to the drug laws in Massachusetts by increasing the minimum weights necessary for trafficking indictments, reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences that accompany drug trafficking convictions, and reducing the distance necessary to prove a school zone violation.  At the time of the Crime Bill’s enactment in August of 2012, the defendant’s case was still pending in superior court.

Before this case, the Supreme Judicial Court had ruled that the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions of the Crime Bill were retroactive.  If a defendant had been arrested and charged before the Crime Bill’s enactment, but convicted afterwards, that defendant was entitled to benefit from the new mandatory minimum.  For example, prior to August 2, 2012, the mandatory minimum sentence for trafficking cocaine between 100 and 200 grams was 10 years in state prison.  The Crime Bill reduced the mandatory minimum for that crime to 8 years in state prison.  The issue in this case was whether the Legislature’s threshold trafficking weights were also retroactive.  Before the Crime Bill’s enactment, the first level of cocaine trafficking was 14-28 grams and the second level was 28-100 grams.  The Legislature changed the first level of cocaine trafficking from 18-36 grams and the second level to 36-100 grams.  The weights of the third level (100-200 grams) and the fourth level (more than 200 grams) of cocaine trafficking were not changed, although the mandatory minimum sentences were reduced.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the new definition of the minimum and maximum trafficking weights would not be applied retroactively.  The Court said that unlike the changes in the mandatory minimum sentencing, the enactment of different weight thresholds changed the crimes’ elements that must be proven by the prosecutor.  The Court noted that the Crime Bill’s language specifically stated the reduced mandatory minimum sentences would apply to prisoners who had already been convicted of drug trafficking and were serving their sentences.  There was nothing to suggest, however, that the Legislature intended the new drug weights to apply to cases that were already pending.

This case will apply to only a small number of defendants who were charged with drug trafficking before the Crime Bill’s enactment but not convicted until after it went into effect.  Going forward, all defendants will benefit from the more favorable weight thresholds and the reduced mandatory minimum sentences.  The reduction in mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking was a good policy decision.  In Massachusetts, many violent crimes, including rape, do not carry mandatory minimum prison sentences.  The minimum mandatory sentences for drug trafficking prior to 2012 were disproportionate and barbaric.