Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Supreme Judicial Court Rules that School Zone Amendment Applies Retroactively

This past week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on an important issue regarding the 2012 law passed by the Massachusetts legislature decreasing the “school zone” limits for drug possession conviction enhancements from 1,000 feet to 300 feet.

The defendant in Commonwealth v. Bradley was originally charged on November 8, 2010 under G.L. c. 94C, § 32C (a ) for possession of marijuana (a class D substance) with intent to distribute it, and was in violation of Massachusetts’ school zone law, G.L. c. 94C, § 32J. The school zone law established sentencing enhancements for committing a drug offense within 1,000 feet of a school. The defendant had allegedly had some quantity of marijuana in his dormitory room, which was 700 feet from a preschool facility. The marijuana was seized by Williamstown police officers who had done so pursuant to a search warrant of the room.

On August 2, 2012, however, Massachusetts passed St.2012, c. 192, otherwise known as “An Act Relative to Sentencing and Improving Law Enforcement Tools.” Among other things, the act amended the school zone law by decreasing the school zone from 1,000 feet to 300 feet. At this time, the defendant in Commonwealth v. Bradley had still not been convicted of the charges against him related to possession of marijuana in a school zone.

The ultimate question before the Supreme Judicial Court was whether the amendment to the school zone law should be applied retroactively so that those who had been charged but not yet adjudicated of their crimes when the amendment was passed. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the amendment should apply to the defendant, and to all others who had been charged, but not yet adjudicated, pursuant to violating the school zone law, prior to August 2, 2012.

In analyzing whether the amendment should be applied prospectively or retroactively, the Supreme Judicial Court reviewed whether a prospective application was “inconsistent with the manifest intent of the law-making body,” that is, did the legislature express the intent for the law to be applied retroactively; and whether prospective application would be “repugnant” to the context of the statute. While the Supreme Judicial Court did not find that the legislature had expressly intended the statute to be applied retroactively, it did find that a prospective application would be repugnant to the context of the amendment.

The Supreme Judicial Court found that one of the bases for the amendment was the unequal pattern of conviction between urban residents and rural residents of Massachusetts. In urban communities, where it is nearly impossible to not be within 1,000 feet of a school zone, findings indicated that African American and Latino residents were being convicted at a much higher rate than white residents, even though African Americans and Latinos do not use more drugs and only make up one-quarter of the population of the state. Being aware that is imbalance was occurring among the state’s residents, the legislature enacted the amendment, which the court found was compelling enough evidence that prospective application would only delay inequality among Massachusetts’ residents.

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.