In a split-decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed the conviction of a man who was found guilty of selling cocaine in Lawrence, despite the absence of testimony from any witness who saw the transaction. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Alvarado.
In April of 2016, officers from the Lawrence Police Department’s drug unit were conducting surveillance near a park that had been the subject of recent complaints of illegal drug activity. The officers saw a car with Maine license plates stop near the park and the defendant got inside. The car then drove approximately 150 yards before stopping and allowing the defendant to exit. The officers did not see any hand-to-hand transaction or other furtive movements on the part of the defendant or the driver of the car. Nevertheless, the officers decided to pull over the car. When the driver stopped, the police noticed him moving around with a clenched hand. The officers ordered him to get out of the car and discovered two bags of cocaine in his hand. Another officer then stopped and searched the defendant, who was in custody of $56 in cash. At trial, the Commonwealth called a state trooper to testify as an expert in street-level drug transactions. The trooper told the jury it is common for a person to arrive from out of town, place an order for drugs, and meet up with the dealer at a certain location. The dealer will then meet the buyer and conduct the transaction, usually in the buyer’s car while it is parked or driven a short distance. The “ride to nowhere” is a common method for drug dealers and buyers to participate in a drug deal. Finally, according to the trooper, the cocaine seized from the driver of the car was worth between $40 and $60.
When the Commonwealth rested, the defendant moved for a required finding of not guilty. This motion is filed by every defendant in every criminal case, and it is almost never successful. A judge can only allow such a motion if, in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, no rational trier of fact (in this case, the jurors) could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, the trial judge denied the defendant’s motion for a required finding of not guilty and allowed the case to be considered by the jury. The jury convicted the defendant of distribution of cocaine in a school zone and the defendant appealed.
The defendant’s sole argument on appeal was that the trial judge should have allowed the Commonwealth’s motion for a required finding. Two justices concluded the motion for a required finding had been properly denied. The majority held that it is not necessary for a police officer to witness a hand-to-hand transaction to charge a defendant with distributing drugs. In this case, the out-of-state license plate combined with the “ride to nowhere,” the driver’s possession of cocaine, the money recovered from the defendant, and other incriminating evidence was sufficient to send the case to the jury. One justice dissented and argued there was not sufficient corroborative evidence for any rational trier of fact to convict the defendant of dealing drugs.
School zone convictions are particularly serious because they result in the imposition of mandatory minimum jail sentences. If you are charged with a drug offense, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.