Court Decision on Drug Lab Cases

Post Date: July 23, 2013

Yesterday the state’s top court, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), issued its decision in three drug lab cases that were argued in June, Commonwealth v. Charles, Commonwealth v. Milette and Superior Court v. Commonwealth.  The Essex County District Attorney challenged some of the court procedures being used in cases where the evidence was tested by chemist Annie Dookhan.  The SJC was asked to decide several issues, but FAMM members probably are most interested in the SJC’s decision that judges can put a drug offender’s sentence on hold — meaning that the person can be released from prison — while his motion for a new trial is being decided.  Many courts were already doing this; the SJC’s decision affirms the practice.  You can read the full decision here (all three cases are combined in one decision). 

What the SJC decided.  The Essex County District Attorney claimed that judges could not put a sentence on hold (called a “stay of execution”) because the rules of criminal procedure only allow that when the defendant has filed an appeal.  The SJC disagreed, finding that courts can also put a sentence on hold for “exceptional reasons” — and that the drug lab crisis is certainly such a reason.”  The magnitude of the allegations of serious and far-reaching misconduct by Dookhan at the Hinton drug lab cannot be overstated . . . the interest of justice is not served by the continued imprisonment of a defendant who may be entitled to a new trial.” 

What the SJC did not decide.  The Court’s decision does not mean that all drug offenders must be released from prison while their motions are pending.  Judges make those decisions on a case-by-case basis, after considering whether defendants are likely to win their motions and whether they would pose a security risk if released.  In addition, the Court did not weigh in on any larger policy matters, such as whether District Attorneys should agree to dismiss certain cases outright, as FAMM and the ACLU suggested last fall.

No decision yet in the Galvin case.  Earlier this month, we told you about another case that the SJC is considering, Commonwealth v. Galvin.  The SJC has not yet decided that case.  The Galvin case is about which law applies to drug offenders whose offenses occurred before the new law took effect in August 2012, but were sentenced after that date.  The SJC will decide if the old law applies or the new one. 

Please let us know if you have any questions. 


Barbara J. Dougan

Massachusetts Project Director