Attorney Chris Spring appeared before the Massachusetts Appeals Court today and argued that his client’s drug conviction should be reversed as a result of multiple errors made by the trial judge. Attorney Spring’s brief can be read here.
A Middlesex Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of possession with intent to distribute heroin. Following his conviction, a judge concluded that the defendant was a “habitual criminal” based on several prior criminal convictions on his record. The Massachusetts habitual criminal law requires that a trial judge sentence a defendant to the maximum penalty for the new crime. Therefore, the defendant in this case was sentenced to 10 years in prison despite the relatively small amount of heroin that he possessed. In his argument to a three-judge panel of the Appeals Court, Attorney Spring made three arguments.
Grand Jury Impropriety
When the arresting police officer appeared in front of the grand jury, he testified that the heroin recovered from the defendant weighed 9.3 grams, when the true weight of the heroin was only 3.54 grams. Attorney Spring argued that the superior court judge incorrectly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case as a result of the erroneous grand jury testimony. In order for a case to be dismissed for an improper grand jury presentation, the defendant is required to prove that: (1) false testimony was given; (2) the witness lied or offered the testimony with a reckless disregard for the truth; and (3) the false testimony probably made a difference in the grand jury’s decision to indict. Attorney Spring argued that the police officer’s false testimony was reckless because the state laboratory had tested and weighed the heroin five days before the officer testified to the grand jury. Had the officer called the lab before he testified, he would have learned the correct weight of the heroin. Further, it probably made a difference because two of the three questions asked by the grand jury related to the weight of the heroin.
Motion to Suppress
The police obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s apartment after receiving information from confidential informants that the defendant and his wife were dealing drugs. A confidential informant participated in three controlled buys in which he bought heroin from the couple. The first two buys were made at the wife’s apartment and didn’t involve the defendant at all. The third controlled buy occurred outside of the defendant’s large apartment complex, where the defendant handed heroin to the informant. Based on the controlled buys, along with information from informants that the defendant was selling drugs out of his apartment, the police obtained a search warrant for his apartment. When the police raided the defendant’s apartment, they found him and his wife actively breaking down heroin into small packages. Attorney Spring argued that while the search warrant application established probable cause that the defendant had sold heroin, there was insufficient evidence to establish that heroin would probably be found in his apartment. Massachusetts appellate courts have repeatedly said that just because someone is a drug dealer, it does not mean that he is automatically storing drugs in his home. Therefore, there needs to be a nexus between the drug dealing activity and the residence in order for the police to obtain a search warrant. Attorney Spring argued that there was an insufficient nexus in this case between the defendant’s drug dealing activities and his apartment.
Improper Expert Testimony
In cases charging possession with intent to distribute, the prosecutor usually calls a drug detective to offer expert testimony about the evidence seized from the defendant. The expert is supposed to confine his testimony to an explanation of the meaningfulness of cryptic evidence (for example, a small piece of paper containing names and numbers might be a “cuff sheet” that allows a drug dealer to keep track of his customers). Unfortunately, in response to prosecutors’ questions, these witnesses almost always state their opinion that the defendant intended to deal drugs rather than use them personally. In this case, Attorney Spring argued that the drug detective inappropriately offered his expert opinion that the defendant was dealing drugs.
The Appeals Court took the matter under advisement and will issue a written decision sometime in the next few months.