In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for future drug prosecutions, the Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed drug possession convictions of a woman that resulted from her arrest in Haverhill. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dolores Paine.
In October of 2008, a state trooper came upon a pickup truck parked outside of a rest area in Route 495 in Haverhill. The trooper shined his spotlight into the cab of the truck and saw the defendant (who was the driver) and her two passengers begin to move around. The trooper then walked up to the truck and saw a crack pipe on one of the passenger’s laps. The trooper ordered all of the occupants out of the truck and, after finding a ball of cocaine, placed them all under arrest. After returning to the barracks, the trooper searched the defendant’s purse and found a pill bottle bearing the defendant’s name and containing various pills of different size and color. All of the narcotics were sent to the state laboratory for analysis.
The defendant was ultimately charged with trafficking cocaine and possession of pills containing cyclobenzaprine and quetiapine, which are Class E controlled substances. At the defendant’s trial, the state chemist who handled her case testify extensively about her identification of the Class E pills. The chemist said that Class E pills are identified by their color, size, shape, and markings. The tablets are matched up with a database containing descriptions of pills by drug manufacturers. The chemist then looks at the ingredient list, provided by the manufacturer, and generates a drug certificate, stating that the pills qualify as Class E substances. The chemist also testified that pills that are classified as higher than Class E (for example, Oxycontin and Percocet are both Class B substances) are actually tested, rather than simply identified by sight.
The Appeals Court pointed out that in order to convict a defendant of illegally possessing a controlled substance, it must first establish that the substance is actually a narcotic (as opposed to a counterfeit substance). With few exceptions, the Commonwealth can satisfy its burden only by having a chemist conduct chemical testing on the substance. The Court wrote that in cases of prescription pills, if there is no chemical analysis, there must be additional circumstantial evidence to establish the identity of the drug. For example, the evidence was sufficient to convict a juvenile in an unrelated case who was distributing Klonopin to her classmates where one of the classmates appeared high after taking the pills, and the juvenile’s mother, who had a prescription for Klonopin, reported missing several of her pills the day her daughter took them to school.
In this case, because the only evidence regarding the nature of the pills was provided by a chemist who conducted a visual inspection, with no corroborating evidence, the defendant’s convictions for possession of a Class E substance were reversed. This case will likely change the protocol for the Massachusetts State Laboratory. Identification of pills in this manner is not an unusual occurrence in Massachusetts courts, but this case establishes that it ordinarily will not be sufficient to uphold a conviction.