Does a “Child Care Center” Qualify as a Preschool Under the Massachusetts School Zone Law?

In an opinion delivered yesterday, the Massachusetts Appeals Court concluded that an East Boston child care center satisfied the definition of a preschool under the school zone statute, thereby exposing the defendant to a mandatory minimum jail sentence in addition to the punishment he received on the underlying drug crime.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cruz

Four times during the winter of 2007, the defendant sold cocaine to an undercover police officer, resulting in charges against him for drug trafficking and drug distribution.  All of the transactions happened within 300 feet of the East Boston YMCA parking lot, which was home to the East Boston Child Care Center.  Accordingly, the defendant was charged with four counts of violating the school zone statute.  After a jury convicted him of all charges, the defendant appealed.  His primary appellate argument was that the child care center did not satisfy the school zone statute’s definition of a preschool.

The law punishes individuals who distribute drugs (or possess drugs with intent to distribute) within 300 feet of a school or 100 feet of a public playground or park.  Several types of schools are specifically referenced by the statute, including private accredited preschools.  The term “preschool” was not defined by the school zone statute.  However, the Appeals Court considered other Massachusetts statutes that conclude a “child care center” may qualify as a preschool.  The Court determined that a “preschool” is a facility where young children (who are not yet old enough to attend elementary school) receive educational instruction.  A daycare facility does not qualify as an institution that is protected by the school zone statute.  The Court ruled that the evidence in this case was sufficient for the jury to have found that the East Boston Child Care Center satisfied the statutory definition of a preschool.  The executive director of the East Boston YMCA testified there were 93 children (younger than elementary school age) who attended the child care center.  They were managed by teachers who had educational capabilities, and the child care center itself had been accredited by a national association for early childhood education.  In its decision, the Court also referenced the purpose of the school zone statute, which intends to prevent the “destructive impact” of drug abuse and drug dealing from encroaching upon all schools.  The Court concluded the law would be unnecessarily limited if it did not apply to the type of child care center housed in the East Boston YMCA, and the defendant’s convictions were therefore affirmed.

The Massachusetts school zone statute was amended in 2012 in several important respects.  The amendments reduced the radius of a school zone from 1,000 feet to 300 feet (meaning a qualifying drug offense needs to occur within 300 feet of a school) and required that the crime occur between 5:00 a.m. and midnight.  The statute applies to drug dealers regardless of whether the school is actually in session.  The law is an important tool for prosecutors because a conviction brings with it a two-year mandatory minimum jail sentence which is required to be served after the sentence for the underlying drug offense has been completed.