Attorney Christopher Spring yesterday argued before the Massachusetts Appeals Court that his client’s conviction for trafficking marijuana should be reversed and remanded to superior court for a new trial.
The police were contacted by UPS employees, who had opened a package that did not contain a label. Upon opening the package, the UPS workers discovered more than 50 pounds of high-grade marijuana secured in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. There was also a label inside the package instructing delivery to the defendant’s address. The police resealed the package and, posing as UPS employees, delivered it to the defendant’s apartment. The package was retrieved on the front porch by a man (later determined to be the defendant’s friend) who carried it into the apartment. The police immediately knocked on the door and entered the apartment. The police secured the premises and applied for a warrant to search the apartment. Upon executing the warrant, officers found the box filled with marijuana in the defendant’s bedroom. Also found in the bedroom were packaging materials, a piece of paper containing names and numbers, personal paperwork belonging to the defendant, and a gun. A Middlesex Grand Jury indicted the defendant for trafficking marijuana and a number of firearms offenses. The defendant was also charged with being an armed career criminal as a result of his past convictions. Represented by a different attorney, the defendant went to trial and was convicted of all charges. The judge sentenced the defendant to serve between seven and nine years in state prison. He hired Attorney Spring to represent him on appeal.
The focus of the appeal was the propriety of the testimony offered by the Commonwealth’s expert witness. As with all drug trafficking cases, the Commonwealth called a drug detective to testify and educate the jury about drug distribution schemes. These witnesses are supposed to explain to juries the significance of certain cryptic evidence that might have been discovered by the police. However, in almost every case, prosecutors attempt to have these witnesses testify that they believe the defendants are drug dealers. Prosecutors typically ask witnesses if the facts of the case are “consistent with” drug distribution activities. This language has been approved by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Both appellate courts make believe that when expert witnesses say evidence is “consistent with” dealing drugs, those witnesses are not really offering opinions about a defendant’s guilt or innocence. It’s a ridiculous legal fairy tale, but prosecutors use these rulings to their advantage.
In this case, however, the prosecutor failed to use the “consistent with” language when asking the expert witness about the meaningfulness of certain evidence. For example, the witness testified the piece of paper found in the defendant’s room containing the names and numbers was a ledger sheet (an accounting sheet typically kept by drug dealers) and that the drugs found in the bedroom were “for distribution.” Attorney Spring argued that the trial judge committed reversible error by allowing the expert witness to offer an opinion about his client’s guilt (which is a conclusion that can only be reached by the jury).
The Appeals Court took the matter under advisement and will issue a decision in a few months.