Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Drug Possession Law in Light of Marijuana Decriminalization

Last week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court released an important decision, generally favorable to defendants, dealing with marijuana possession laws and how to determine whether a suspect intends to distribute the drugs in his possession.

The juvenile defendant in Commonwealth v. Humberto H. was charged on January 24, 2011 with possession of a Class D substance (marijuana) with intent to distribute, in violation of G.L. c. 94C, § 32C, and a delinquency complaint issued later that day. A Boston school police officer, after conducting an administrative search of the juvenile, found five plastic bags of marijuana on his person, totaling one half ounce in weight.  

A district court judge later dismissed the complaint against the juvenile, stating that the evidence did not support a finding of probable cause that the juvenile intended to distribute the marijuana. The Commonwealth appealed the decision, and the case eventually made its way to the SJC.

In 2008, Massachusetts voters decriminalized possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. However, possession of less than one ounce with intent to distribute remained a crime. In order to prove this crime, prosecutors must show probable cause that the accused intended to distribute the drugs.

In Commonwealth v. Humberto H., the Court found that the five bags of marijuana were not packaged in a manner or weight consistent with intent to distribute. Therefore, according to the SJC, the lower court did not err in dismissing the charges. The Court also noted that the dismissal was without prejudice, and that the Commonwealth would be able to file a new delinquency complaint against the juvenile if it were to present evidence supporting a finding of probable cause of intent to distribute.

In addition, the SJC reflected on the strategic changes to policing and prosecution following passage of the decriminalization ballot initiative. Prior to 2008, when a suspect was allegedly caught with less than an ounce of marijuana, prosecutors would often charge him with simple possession even when there may have been probable cause that the suspect intended to distribute the marijuana.

Since the decriminalization, the only options available to prosecutors in this situation are to charge the suspect with possession with intent to distribute, or to charge him with nothing. Therefore, both police and prosecutors may have an incentive to infer intent to distribute even when probable cause cannot be established. The SJC stressed the need for law enforcement to avoid this temptation, since doing so would undermine the intent of Massachusetts voters. While prosecutors are entitled to change how they exercise their discretion in light of decriminalization, they must do so in a way that is consistent with the law.

This case may have important implications for criminal suspects and criminal defense attorneys. It makes it more likely that suspects, with effective legal representation, will be able to convince prosecutors and judges to drop or dismiss charges of possession of less than one ounce of marijuana with intent to distribute.

If you have been charged with violating Massachusetts criminal laws you should immediately seek out the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact Edward R. Molari, Attorney at Law, today for a confidential consultation.


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