In an important decision delivered yesterday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court limited the application of the school zone statute to defendants charged with drug dealing crimes. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Peterson.
The defendant was the front-seat passenger in car being driven on a Dorchester street in May of 2014. A police cruiser pulled up behind the car as it was stopped at a light immediately next to a public park. The cops learned the car in which the defendant was riding had an expired inspection sticker. When the light turned green, the police pulled over the car. Several officers approached and the defendant was witnessed pulling a plastic bag from his pocket and dropping it on the floorboard behind him. The cops retrieved the bag, which contained 40 individually-wrapped packages of crack cocaine. A subsequent search of the car revealed a loaded, semiautomatic handgun in a bag near where the defendant had been sitting. The defendant was arrested and charged with, among other crimes, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and a school zone violation. The school zone statute provides for additional punishment (a mandatory two years in jail) for drug dealers who distribute (or possess with intent to distribute) drugs within 300 feet of a school (during certain hours of the day) or within 100 feet of a public park or playground. Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the school zone charge, arguing that as a passenger in a car driven by another person, his presence within 100 feet of the park was “entirely fortuitous” and should not be punished. A judge in the Boston Municipal Court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the school zone charge. The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
The SJC pointed out first that the school zone statute is a strict liability law, which means a defendant can be punished even if he was not aware he was within 300 feet of a school or 100 feet of a park. In this case, however, the Court was tasked with considering whether the Legislature intended to impose criminal liability against someone like the defendant, who did nothing other than travel near a park as a passenger in a car (while possessing drugs with intent to distribute). The Court concluded that charging the defendant with the school zone statute would cause an “absurd” or “illogical” result. The purpose of the law when it was enacted in the 1980s was to protect children from being exposed to drug dealers. In this case, the defendant’s proximity to the park happened by chance, and there is no evidence he intended to deal drugs in, or even around, the park. Accordingly, there was no risk that children playing in the park would be exposed to the defendant’s drug dealing activities.
This is an important decision that limits the power of a draconian law. Until a few years ago, the school zone statute applied to all areas within 1,000 feet (instead of 300 feet) of a school. As a practical matter, many cities in Massachusetts did not have any areas that were not within 1,000 feet of a school. In reducing the distance to 300 feet (and in allowing prosecutions only if the violations occurred between 5 a.m. and midnight), the Legislature attempted to limit the applicability of the law to only those defendants who were actually close to a school or park within hours that a child might be present. This case is a further effort to punish only those drug dealers who are committing their crimes in a manner that might cause exposure to children.