Massachusetts Appeals Court Allows Wrongfully Convicted Defendant to Sue the Commonwealth for Damages

The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday ruled that a man wrongfully convicted of drug trafficking is entitled to sue the Commonwealth for damages.  The name of the case is Santana v. Commonwealth

The defendant was convicted of trafficking between 14 and 28 grams of cocaine while in a school zone, which carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence.  The Commonwealth’s entire case against the defendant consisted of his proximity to the drugs.  The defendant was sitting in the front passenger seat of a car.  The cocaine was in plain view in the front console between the two front seats.  There was no other evidence connecting the defendant to the drugs.  Possession (which is an element of drug trafficking – the defendant has to possess the drugs at some point) is defined as knowledge coupled with the intention to control.  Therefore, even if someone is sitting next to contraband, he does not possess it unless he intends to control it.  Despite this crystal clear rule of law, the trial judge allowed the jury to consider the case and the jury convicted the defendant.  The defendant appealed and the Appeals Court correctly reversed his conviction, ruling the trial judge should have entered a finding of not guilty at the end of the Commonwealth’s case and not allowed the jury to even consider the evidence.

Following the reversal of his conviction, the defendant sued the Commonwealth.  There is a Massachusetts statute that allows people who have been erroneously convicted of a felony to sue in limited circumstances.  The defendant’s felony conviction needs to have been reversed on the grounds that the defendant was actually innocent; the defendant needs to have been sentenced to at least one year of incarceration in state prison or county jail; and the defendant needs to have served all or part of the prison or jail sentence.  At trial, the wrongfully-convicted defendant needs to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he did not commit the crime.

The issue in this case is whether the defendant was eligible to sue.  The Commonwealth argued the reason for the reversal of his conviction – insufficiency of the evidence – did not tend to establish his innocence as required by the statute.  The Appeals Court disagreed and will allow the defendant to litigate his suit (where he will still have to establish his innocence by clear and convincing evidence).  The Court noted that the reversal established there was an absence of evidence showing the defendant intended to exercise control over the contraband, and that absence of evidence tends to show actual innocence.

Clients often ask if they have any rights to damages if they were wrongfully charged with a crime.  They want to know if they can sue the police, the prosecutor, or the judge.  The answer is almost always no.  The prosecutor and the judge are immune from liability.  Even this statute is quite limited.  In order to sue, there needs to have been a conviction, an imposed prison or jail sentence, the actual service of some sort of prison or jail sentence, and compelling proof that the defendant was actually innocent.  Therefore, if a conviction is reversed on a technical or procedural ground, the defendant is not permitted to sue.  Also, the Commonwealth’s liability is capped at $500,000 and the defendant is not entitled to punitive damages.