The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a trial judge’s decision to allow a convicted Holyoke drug dealer to withdraw his guilty plea based on the misconduct of a state-employed chemist. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ubeira-Gonzalez.
In 2010, the defendant pleaded guilty to possession of a class A substance (heroin) with intent to distribute in Holyoke District Court. In 2012, the defendant was charged in federal court with distribution of a controlled substance and he then asked the Hoyloke District Court judge to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea to the possession with intent charge. This is a common strategy for drug dealers who are charged in federal court, because a prior state court conviction can allow the federal judge to add many years of prison onto a federal sentence. If the state conviction is vacated, the defendant’s federal prison exposure decreases significantly.
The Holyoke District Court case was the product of the defendant’s arrest for an outstanding warrant. When the police attempted to arrest the defendant, he struck the officer in the face and tried to run away. After a violent struggle, the defendant was taken into custody and transported to the police station. A search of the cruiser after transport revealed 206 bags of heroin that the defendant had left behind.
The basis of the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea in Holyoke District Court was misconduct by a state chemist named Sonja Farak. In 2013, the state police began investigating the Amherst Laboratory, where Farak worked. The police determined that Farak had mishandled and improperly stored drug samples and believed that Farak had taken drug samples she tested and replaced them with counterfeit substances. In 2014, Farak pleaded guilty to four counts of theft of a controlled substance, four counts of evidence tampering, and two counts of possession of drugs. The defendant argued that his guilty plea was not voluntarily and intelligently made because he was unaware of Farak’s misconduct. The Holyoke District Court judge accepted the defendant’s argument and allowed his motion to withdraw the plea. The Appeals Court reversed.
The Appeals Court said that in order for the defendant to have been permitted to withdraw his guilty plea based on the chemist’s misconduct, he was obligated to make a preliminary showing that the chemist’s misconduct occurred before the entry of his guilty plea. In this case, the evidence suggested that Farak did not commit her crimes until three years after the defendant pleaded guilty. Therefore, Farak’s misconduct was irrelevant to the defendant’s case.
The defendant also argued that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance of counsel by allowing him to plead guilty before the lab tests were returned (which would have proven that the substance in the 206 bags was, in fact, heroin). The Appeals Court rejected that argument in short order, writing that, “it is not as if the defendant was without personal knowledge of the contents of the 206 packets at issue.”
Any conviction (whether by way of a jury verdict or a plea) for a drug dealing offense can result in catastrophic consequences if the defendant continues to deal drugs. A new charge will either be charged federally or in superior court as a subsequent offense. In either case, the defendant will be facing harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences.