The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the conviction of a drug dealer who was caught with at least 18 bags of crack cocaine in Roxbury. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ehiabhi.
In June of 2013, two Boston cops saw the defendant driving on the wrong side of a Roxbury road in the middle of the night. The cops stopped the defendant’s car and observed the defendant to have slurred speech and red, glassy eyes. The defendant smelled like burnt marijuana. While the defendant had a valid Massachusetts driver’s license, the car he was driving was a rental vehicle that was overdue by two weeks. The cops ordered the defendant to get out of the car and began to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle. During the inventory search, the officers found a glass pipe, a box of sandwich bags (commonly used by drug dealers to package their product) and a thumbtack (commonly used to break off pieces of crack cocaine). One of the officers then saw several bumps protruding from the defendant’s shirt. When the cops asked about the bumps, the defendant began to flee. Three officers ran after the defendant and saw him retrieve items from his shirt and throw them on the ground. When the cops finally caught up to the defendant, he spit a small baggie containing crack cocaine from his mouth. He was arrested and handcuffed, and the cops were able to find the items the defendant had discarded during the chase – 17 baggies also containing crack cocaine. The defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine (subsequent offense) and after a jury convicted him, he appealed.
The defendant first challenged a superior court judge’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence gleaned from the search of his vehicle. The Commonwealth’s theory was that the search was a constitutionally-permissible inventory search. The SJC agreed, noting that neither the defendant nor his passenger was the lawful owner of the vehicle and it therefore was not practical to leave it on the side of the road. The Boston Police Department had a policy to search vehicles before their tow in order to safeguard any property that may be contained therein. Therefore, ruled the Court, the search of the car was proper pursuant to the Boston Police Department’s inventory policy.
Perhaps the most interesting appellate issue in this case was whether the judge had the authority to sentence the defendant under a section of the law that had not been charged. There is a Massachusetts law that punishes people who possess all class B substances (including cocaine) with the intent to distribute. There is another law that punishes people who possess a specific class B substance – cocaine – with the intent to distribute. The defendant here could have been charged under either statute, but the Commonwealth chose to charge him under the section that carried a harsher mandatory prison sentence. The sentencing judge wasn’t satisfied with the prosecutor’s explanation for why the defendant had been charged under the more draconian statute. The judge imposed a less-severe sentence than what was required by the statute and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed. The SJC said the Commonwealth had properly exercised its “prosecutorial discretion” to decide what specific statute would be charged in this case. Absent some sort of misconduct (for example, making charging decisions based on the race or religion of the defendant), the Court will not interfere in the proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion.
The Legislature is in the process of reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes. This case illustrates how judges are hamstrung by mandatory minimums.