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Commonwealth v. Wallace

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Hampden

July 28, 2017

COMMONWEALTH
v.
LARON WALLACE.

          Heard: April 13, 2017

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on April 20, 2011.

         A motion to withdraw a plea of guilty was heard by Tina S. Page, J.

          Sara A. Laroche for the defendant.

          Benjamin Shorey, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Kafker, C.J., Grainger, & Massing, JJ. [1]

          KAFKER, C.J.

         The defendant, Laron Wallace, appeals from the denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea to possession with intent to distribute a Class B substance, G. L. c. 94C, § 32A(c). He argues that the motion judge abused her discretion in denying the motion because of the Commonwealth's misconduct in a prior case of his involving the chemist Sonja Farak, which came to light after the guilty plea was entered in this case. Although Farak was not the chemist in this case, the defendant contends that her misconduct in the prior case casts doubt upon the justice of this plea because he considered the concurrent sentences he received in the two cases to be interrelated. Essentially he contends that because his motion for a new trial was allowed and his sentence reduced in the other case involving Farak, the same should occur in this case. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the denial of the motion to withdraw the guilty plea.

         Background.

         The following facts are undisputed. On March 2, 2011, the defendant was arrested by Springfield police executing a search warrant at an apartment located within 100 feet of a public park. The defendant was observed with a bag containing thirty-seven rocks of a substance later determined to be crack cocaine, packaged in smaller individual bags, at his feet. A search of the defendant's person revealed $378 in cash and two cellular telephones. Police also found two digital scales in the apartment. The defendant was indicted in Superior Court, docket no. 2011-00300 (the 2011 case) on two counts: (1) possession with intent to distribute a Class B substance, subsequent offense, G. L. c. 94C, § 34A(d); and (2) a drug violation in a school or park zone, G. L. c. 94C, § 32J, commonly known as the "school zone" statute.

         At the time of his arrest, the defendant was at liberty on bail and awaiting trial on docket no. 2010-00514 (the 2010 case), another drug distribution case before the same court. In July of 2011, the 2010 case proceeded to a jury trial. At trial, Farak, a chemist at the Department of Public Health's State Laboratory Institute in Amherst (Amherst lab) testified that the substance seized from the defendant was cocaine. The Commonwealth also presented a drug certificate, created and signed by Farak, stating that the seized substance was cocaine. The jury convicted the defendant on both counts in that case, and the trial judge sentenced him to a total of seven years of incarceration.

         Following his conviction in the 2010 case, the defendant and the Commonwealth reached a plea agreement in the 2011 case. The plea bargain provided that (1) the defendant would plead guilty to possession with intent to distribute a Class B substance, first offense; (2) the Commonwealth would file a nolle prosequi on the school zone charge; and (3) the parties would jointly recommend a sentence of five years to five years and one day, to be served concurrently with the defendant's seven-year sentence in the 2010 case.

         At the plea colloquy for the 2011 case, the Commonwealth stated that the recommended sentence "is . . . based on what the Commonwealth believes that we could prove with regard to [the defendant's] level of involvement in this particular investigation. But we feel [five years] is an appropriate recommendation given [the defendant's] history and the fact that he's serving the seven-year minimum mandatory sentence." The defense counsel told the plea judge that the recommended sentence would not "disturb" the defendant's seven-year sentence, but "[would] be within it, " and asked the judge to adopt the recommendation because it gave the defendant "some light at the end of the tunnel." The judge expressed concern that the defendant had committed a new drug offense while awaiting trial for the previous one, and called the 2011 case a "case[] that really scream[s] for the imposition of the subsequent offender portion of the indictment." The judge stated that she was adopting the parties' recommendation "[w]ith great reluctance." The defendant was sentenced to a five-year State prison term, "to run concurrent with the sentence imposed [in the 2010 case]."

         In 2013, after Farak was arrested for tampering with evidence from the Amherst lab, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial in the 2010 case, which was granted. On January 9, 2014, the defendant pleaded guilty on the first count of the 2010 case, to the lesser-included offense of possession with intent to distribute a Class B substance. The Commonwealth filed a nolle prosequi on the school zone charge. The defendant received a new sentence of three and one-half ...


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