Massachusetts Appeals Court Reverses Cambridge School Zone Conviction

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a man’s conviction for violating the state’s school zone statute, concluding the Commonwealth had failed to present evidence the school was “accredited” as required by the law.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cooper.

In March of 2012, an undercover Cambridge police officer met with the defendant and said she wanted to buy drugs.  The defendant said he would sell her gabapentin, which is a prescription medication used to treat a number of medical conditions including epilepsy, hot flashes, and restless leg syndrome.  It has only recently started to be abused by recreational drug users.  The defendant told the cop he had a prescription for gabapentin with five refills remaining.  Later the same day, the defendant sold 32 gabapentin pills to the undercover cop when they met at a Cambridge pizza restaurant.  The officer saw the defendant retrieve the pills from a prescription bottle containing his name.  He cautioned her not to consume more than five pills at a time.  The drug deal took place within 300 feet of the Bright Horizon Children’s Center.  A Cambridge District Court jury convicted the defendant of distribution of a class E substance within a school zone.  The Appeals Court upheld the distribution conviction but reversed the school zone conviction.

The fatal flaw in the Commonwealth’s case was the issue of the Children’s Center’s accreditation.  The school zone statute applies to defendants who distribute drugs (or possess drugs with the intent to distribute) within 300 feet of a public school or a private accredited school (between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and midnight).  At trial, the Commonwealth introduced evidence that the Children’s Center was licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.  The prosecutor argued such licensing was sufficient to establish guilt under the statute, while the defendant argued “licensed” and “accredited” were not synonymous.  The Appeals Court noted that “accredited” is not defined in the statute, but looked at similar laws to consider its meaning.  In the context of private occupational schools, all accredited schools are licensed, but not all licensed schools are accredited.  In order to be accredited, private licensed occupational schools are required to undergo a more significant review process and satisfy a more stringent set of criteria.  Application of the statutory language that regulates private occupational schools establishes that accreditation involves a higher level of oversight than licensing.  In this case, because the statute requires proof that the private preschool was accredited and the Commonwealth proved only that it was licensed, the defendant’s conviction for the school zone violation was reversed.

A defendant who is convicted of the Massachusetts school zone statute faces a mandatory jail sentence of two years.  Its harsh application has been scaled back in recent years by the Legislature, which has imposed time restrictions (the crime must have been committed between the hours of 5 a.m. and midnight) and parole eligibility (a defendant is parole eligible after serving half of the sentence, whereas the original statute required the defendant to serve at least two years).  The Supreme Judicial Court also recently limited the criminal exposure of school zone defendants who are passengers in a car.  These are important developments to rein in a draconian law.