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Commonwealth v. Peterson

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

January 3, 2017


          Heard: October 5, 2016.

         Complaint received and sworn to in the Central Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department on June 23, 2014.

         A motion to dismiss was heard by Eleanor C. Sinnott, J. The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

          Matthew T. Sears, Assistant District Attorney (Amanda Read Cascione, Assistant District Attorney, with him) for the Commonwealth.

          J. Scott Lauer, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for the defendant.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Botsford, Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          GAZIANO, J.

         General Laws c. 94C, § 32J, the so-called school zone statute, punishes individuals who commit certain enumerated drug offenses within 300 feet of a school or one hundred feet of a public park or playground. In 1992, we determined that the school zone statute does not violate a defendant's due process rights, but cautioned that "[t]here may be extraordinary circumstances shown in some cases which would make it unfair to find guilt under § 32J." Commonwealth v. Alvarez, 413 Mass. 224, 228, 230 n.5 (1992). This case tests the bounds of school zone statute liability. The issue presented is whether the statute applies to a defendant who is located momentarily within one hundred feet of a public park solely because he is a passenger in a motor vehicle that is driven on a public roadway past the park and, fortuitously, stops at a red light. We conclude that application of G. L. c. 94C, § 32J, to the defendant, in the particular facts and circumstances of this case, would be overreaching. The park zone charge, therefore, must be dismissed.


         The following facts are drawn from the police report; they are uncontested for purposes of this interlocutory appeal. On May 12, 2014, at approximately 5:45 P..M., three police officers assigned to the Boston police department's youth violence strike force were on patrol in the Dorchester section of Boston in a police cruiser. Driving down Ceylon Street, they observed a white Chevrolet Cruze automobile in front of them, stopped at a red light at the intersection of Ceylon Street and Columbia Road. Immediately adjacent to Ceylon Street, at that intersection, is a public park called Ceylon Park. While traveling along Ceylon Street and when stopped at the light, the Chevrolet was within one hundred feet of the park.

         There were four people in the vehicle, including the defendant, who was the front seat passenger. The three officers learned through their onboard computer that the vehicle's inspection sticker had expired. When the light turned green, the vehicle proceeded through the intersection. The officers activated their lights and sirens and stopped the vehicle a short distance away, at the intersection of Columbia Road and Hamilton Street, at which point the vehicle was no longer within one hundred feet of Ceylon Park.

         When asked for his license and registration, the driver told police that he did not have a driver's license or registration for the vehicle. He provided a name and birth date that the officers later discovered was false. The officers also obtained names and dates of birth from the passengers, none of whom was wearing a seat belt. Two of the officers returned to the police cruiser to verify this information.

         The officer who remained at the vehicle noticed the defendant remove a clear plastic bag from his left front pants pocket and drop it on the floorboard behind him, in front of a female passenger's feet. The officer opened the front passenger door to investigate, and a struggle ensued when the defendant pushed him away. When they saw the door being opened, the other officers returned from the cruiser and assisted in removing the defendant from the vehicle. He was handcuffed and seated on the ground, and the other occupants were ordered to get out of the vehicle. The officers searched the vehicle and found the clear plastic bag. It contained forty individually wrapped "bumps" of what appeared to be "crack" cocaine, and six pills that appeared to be a prescription drug. The officers arranged to have the vehicle towed and conducted an inventory search prior to towing. In a brown leather bag on the front passenger's side floorboard, they discovered a loaded, semiautomatic handgun. After the discovery of the weapon, the other occupants of the vehicle were handcuffed for officer safety. The rear seat passengers were given warnings about the seat belt violations and released, and the driver was arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm.

         The defendant was arrested and charged with a number of firearm offenses, resisting arrest, assault and battery on a police officer, and three narcotics offenses: possession of a class B controlled substance, in violation of G. L. c. 94C, § 34; possession of a class B controlled substance with intent to distribute, in violation of G. L. c. 94C, § 32A; and committing a drug offense within one hundred feet of a public park, in violation of G. L. c. 94C, § 32J. The defendant sought to dismiss the park zone charge, arguing that G. L. c. 94C, § 32J, is unconstitutional as applied to him, and that prosecution in these circumstances would violate his right to due process, "given that [he] was a passenger in a vehicle driven by another individual and his presence within [one hundred] feet of a park zone was entirely fortuitous" and not the sort of circumstance the Legislature intended to reach in enacting G. L. c. 94C, ...

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