Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Awards New Trial in Drug Dealing Entrapment Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed the drug-dealing conviction of a man who asserted the rarely-used (and rarely-successful) entrapment defense at his superior court trial.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Denton

In December of 2013, an undercover police officer approached the defendant.  The officer told the defendant he was “dope-sick” (a term addicts use to describe the horrific symptoms associated with heroin withdrawal) and asked the defendant if he could obtain $40 worth of heroin for him.  Drug addicts are sympathetic to fellow drug addicts who are in withdrawal and will typically help them obtain heroin to make them feel better, which is exactly what happened in this case.  The defendant got into a car being driven by a second undercover cop and directed him to drive to a particular location.  When they arrived, the defendant took $40 from the cops and went into a building, where he bought a bag of heroin to give to the cops.  The cops gave the defendant $5 for his help.  On a later date, after the state lab confirmed the substance was, in fact, heroin, a warrant issued for the defendant’s arrest.  At his trial in Essex Superior Court, the defendant was found guilty of distribution of heroin.  Because of prior drug dealing offenses, the defendant was sentenced to a mandatory minimum three and a half years in state prison.

At trial, the defendant advanced the entrapment defense.  Entrapment means the defendant would not have ordinarily committed the crime, but the government (in this case, the undercover police officers) enticed him to perform the criminal act.  Entrapment is almost never a successful defense at trial because the defendant has to establish he was not predisposed to commit the crime, which is a tough sell to a jury.  In this case, after the defendant presented his entrapment argument in court, the Commonwealth sought to introduce evidence that he was predisposed to distribute heroin to the undercover officers.  The Commonwealth’s evidence on the predisposition issue was that the defendant had previously been convicted of drug dealing crimes on three occasions – once each in 1991, 1993, and 1994.  Over the defendant’s objection, the trial judge admitted the Commonwealth’s evidence to establish he was predisposed to commit the crime in this case.  Following his conviction, the defendant appealed and argued the trial judge should not have admitted his prior convictions into evidence.  The Supreme Judicial Court agreed.

The Court acknowledged such propensity evidence is admissible in cases where the defendant asserts entrapment.  However, in considering whether such propensity (otherwise known as “prior bad act”) evidence is admissible, a trial judge is obligated to determine if the evidence is recent enough to remain probative of the defendant’s state of mind.  In other words, if the defendant was engaging in drug dealing activities six months prior to his arrest in this case, that would be much more valuable evidence than if he had dealt drugs approximately two decades ago.  The SJC determined the prior convictions in this case were simply too old to be helpful to the factfinder.  The trial judge was wrong, said the SJC, to conclude evidence of the prior convictions was more probative than prejudicial.  Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction was reversed and the case was remanded to the superior court, where the Commonwealth will need to decide if it will retry the defendant.