Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Limits Defendants’ Exposure Under Armed Career Criminal Law

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday delivered an important ruling that will potentially reduce criminal defendants’ exposure when they are charged under the armed career criminal statute.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Resende.  

The Massachusetts Armed Career Criminal (ACC) sentence enhancement statute mandates mandatory (and draconian) prison sentences for defendants who are convicted of certain gun crimes if they have previously been convicted of violent crimes or serious drug offenses.  A defendant with one prior eligible conviction is subject to a mandatory minimum of three years in prison; two prior convictions carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years; and three prior convictions carry a mandatory minimum of 15 years.

In this case, the grand jury indicted the defendant for various gun and drug crimes including carrying a firearm and possession with intent to distribute cocaine (subsequent offense).  The charges resulted from the defendant’s arrest in Brockton by a state trooper in May of 2011.  The trooper spotted the defendant walking in a high-crime area while wearing a long jacket (on a warm night) that covered his pants pockets.  The trooper watched as the defendant moved his hand under his jacket and near the waistband of his pants.  The trooper and his partner decided to approach the defendant and have a conversation with him.  The defendant provided his correct name and one of the troopers remembered him from a prior investigation that resulted in the seizure of two guns.  As the troopers continued to talk to the defendant, he continuously put his right hand into his pocket as if to control a heavy object (like a gun).  The troopers asked the defendant to remove his hand from his pocket and lift up his shirt.  The defendant lifted his shirt but exposed only the left side of his pants.  At that point, one of the troopers reached underneath the defendant’s shirt and grabbed a loaded gun that was tucked in the right side of the defendant’s waistband.  The troopers arrested the defendant.

Following his conviction on this new case, the defendant chose to have a bench trial (a trial where a judge, instead of a jury, decides the case) to determine if he was subject to ACC enhancements to his sentence.  The Commonwealth presented evidence that in 2006, the defendant was charged with five counts of distribution of cocaine.  The evidence in that case established the defendant distributed cocaine on five different days during a 17-day period.  Every count of distribution was contained in a single set of charges and the defendant pled guilty to all of them at a single plea hearing (and received concurrent jail sentences).  The judge concluded that the Commonwealth had proven the defendant had three or more predicate convictions pursuant to the ACC statute and sentenced him to the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison.  The defendant argued on appeal that his five prior drug convictions were part of a single criminal act, and he should have been convicted of only one prior predicate offense (instead of three or more) and been subject to a three-year mandatory minimum (instead of 15 years).

The Supreme Judicial Court first considered the plain language of the statute, which states the prior convictions must have arisen from separate incidences.  The Court concluded that the Legislature intended for each “separate incidence” to result from a separate prosecution and not simply a separate criminal event.  Because the defendant’s five previous drug charges were all prosecuted at the same time and were included in the same complaint, they did not constitute “separate incidences” pursuant to the statute.  As a result, the SJC reversed so much of the defendant’s conviction that found he had at least three prior predicate convictions and remanded the case to superior court for resentencing.

This decision will have huge implications for defendants charged under the ACC statute, as prior convictions are often found in the same indictment, prosecuted at the same time.  Going forward, those multiple convictions will only count as one predicate offense.