The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a drug dealing conviction against a man who was allegedly in the business of selling crack cocaine on the streets of Brockton. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Smith.
In April of 2014, Brockton cops were conducting surveillance near the intersection of East Ashland and North Cary Streets. They watched a Volvo slowly drive by and pull into a closed packie. The defendant approached the Volvo and entered the front passenger seat. The driver pulled out of the parking lot and drove a short distance before stopping and allowing the defendant to exit. A detective drove near the defendant and identified himself as a police officer. In response, the defendant began to run away. The detective saw the defendant place his hands near the front of his pants as he continued to flee. A second officer joined in the chase and eventually caught up with the defendant on a nearby street. The detective then returned to the area where the defendant had been running and discovered 15 individually-wrapped bags of crack cocaine. The defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine. A Plymouth County superior court jury convicted the defendant and he appealed.
An all-too-familiar scene played out at the defendant’s trial. In virtually all superior court drug cases where the defendant is charged with possession with intent to distribute narcotics, the prosecutor calls a so-called expert witness to testify about how street-level drug transactions occur. The expert is ordinarily an experienced drug detective who tells the jury that the defendant’s conduct is “consistent with” someone who was a drug dealer (instead of a drug user). In this case, the “expert” was a detective who was not involved in the defendant’s arrest. He offered general testimony about the crack cocaine trade in Brockton, telling the jury what crack looks like and how much it’s worth. The expert explained to the jury the manner in which drugs are packaged for sale by dealers. He testified that in Brockton, drug dealers typically sell drugs in one of three ways: in their homes; after flagging down motorists driving on public streets; or through a delivery service (which happened here – the defendant allegedly made plans to meet the buyer in the packie parking lot to sell the crack). In this case, the expert predictably testified that the evidence suggested the defendant was a drug dealer rather than a drug user.
On appeal, the defendant argued the expert’s testimony constituted improper “profiling” evidence that labeled him a drug dealer based on certain characteristics. The Appeals Court disagreed, concluding that the expert’s testimony was properly explanatory (rather than conclusory) and had served the purpose of educating the jury on facts it would have not otherwise understood. The Court attempted to distinguish a Supreme Judicial Court case from earlier this year that reversed a drug dealing conviction where the SJC concluded the Commonwealth’s evidence that the defendant did not “look” like a crack cocaine user (and therefore must be a dealer) constituted improper profiling evidence. In this case, the Appeals Court ruled that the evidence at trial dealt with the defendant’s actions, rather than his appearance, which rendered it acceptable. Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction was upheld.
There is an ongoing problem in Massachusetts with improper evidence being admitted against defendants in drug dealing cases, and this is the latest example.