Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Chelsea Drug Dealing Conviction After Defendant Stopped for Drinking in Public

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed the conviction of a man who was convicted of a drug dealing crime after he was stopped in Chelsea because he was drinking in public.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Bones

In April of 2012, a Chelsea police officer was dispatched to the area of Bellingham Square to investigate possible drug activity.  When the officer arrived at the scene, he found the defendant walking down the sidewalk and drinking from a nip bottle containing alcohol.  The defendant apologized when he saw the officer and dumped the alcohol onto the sidewalk.  The officer detained the defendant to see if he had any outstanding warrants, and, sure enough, the defendant was the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant.  The defendant was arrested and transported to the Chelsea Police Department.  At the station, the defendant was searched and found to have $209 in cash (separated into several bundles of small amounts) in his pockets and 15 individually-packaged bags of heroin hidden in his sock.  The defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin (subsequent offense).  The defendant filed a motion to suppress his stop, arguing the police officer lacked constitutional authority to detain him in order to run a warrant check.  A superior court judge denied his motion.  At trial, the police officer testified that drug dealers are typically found with small bundles of cash (the proceeds of their drug sales) in various pockets.  Following his conviction by a jury of possession of heroin with intent to distribute, the defendant appealed.

The defendant argued on appeal that his motion to suppress should have been allowed because it is not a crime to drink alcohol in public in Chelsea.  Therefore, said the defendant, the cop had no right to seize him to check for warrants.  The Appeals Court rejected the argument because the cop testified at the motion to suppress hearing that drinking in public in Chelsea is a criminal offense (a violation of a municipal bylaw or ordinance).  The Court held that the officer’s testimony was sufficient to justify the defendant’s seizure.  The Court then pointed out that trial courts may not take judicial notice of municipal ordinances (unlike statutes, regulations, and legislative history).  As a result, when a defendant is making an argument that he did not violate a municipal ordinance, it makes it much more difficult for him to prove his innocence.  The Appeals Court suggested it might be appropriate for the Supreme Judicial Court to reconsider the rule that trial courts are prohibited from taking judicial notice of municipal ordinances and bylaws.

The Court also ruled the evidence was sufficient to support the defendant’s conviction.  The heroin he possessed was packaged in 15 individually-wrapped bags, he did not have any instruments that would have allowed him to ingest the heroin, and he had several bunches of money that were consistent with the proceeds of street-level drug transactions.

Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction for possession with intent to distribute heroin (subsequent offense) was upheld by the Appeals Court.