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SJC Rules that Law Reducing School Zone Radius is Retroactive

school-bus-red-light-655548-m.jpgOn August 2, 2012, the Massachusetts legislature passed the 2012 crime bill. Part of this bill reduced the minimum mandatory sentences associated with various drug crimes. This included a reduction of the size of “school zone” violations, which carry enhanced penalties for drug crimes committed near a school. The bill specifically reduced the radius encompassed by a school zone from 1000′ to 300′ from the school. Despite the fact that the reduction is a positive change, a number of practical questions about how the new law should be applied remain. One unresolved issue is how to treat pending cases, i.e., cases in which defendants were charged prior to the passage of the law, but convicted after the law was enacted.

In August 2013, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling in Commonwealth v. Galvin that squarely addressed whether the changes in the minimum mandatory sentences should apply to pending cases. This week, in Commonwealth v. Bradley, the SJC reached a similar conclusion in relation to defendants with pending school zone charges.

In Bradley, the police searched the defendant’s dormitory room and recovered marijuana. The search occurred in 2010. The defendant’s room was approximately 700 feet from an accredited preschool facility, which qualifies as a “school” for the purposes of the statute. Shortly thereafter, the defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and committing a school zone violation – specifically, distributing or intending to distribute a controlled substance within 1000′ feet of a school. The case was still pending at the time that the 2012 crime bill was enacted. After the passage of the bill, the defendant moved to dismiss the school zone violation, arguing that changes in the law – specifically the reduction of the school zone radius from 1000′ to 300′ – applied to pending cases. The trial court judge reported the question to the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court granted a request for direct appellate review. The SJC then answered the question in the affirmative, holding that the reduction in the school zone radius applied to all cases alleging a school zone violation for which a guilty plea had not been accepted or a conviction entered as of August 2, 2012, regardless of whether the alleged violation occurred prior to the enactment of the law.


The Court’s reasoning mirrored the reasoning it applied in Galvin. The Court first noted that a newly enacted statute is presumptively prospective – meaning that it only applies to charges brought after the enactment of the statute. The court added, however, that this presumption is not absolute; where solely prospective application would be inconsistent with the “manifest intent” of the legislature or “repugnant to the context of the same statute,” retroactive application is appropriate. The Court then concluded that solely prospective application would be “repugnant to the context of the same statute” under the circumstances presented in Bradley’s case, where the defendant was charged with a school zone violation prior to the enactment of the 2012 crime bill, and the case was still pending at the time the bill was implemented.
The Court explained that a school zone violation is not a separate crime, but rather, a sentencing enhancement for those who commit drug crimes in a specific area. The Court also stated that the initial purpose of the school zone sentencing enhancement was to protect children from drug dealers, but acknowledged that since the enactment of the statute, studies have shown that the 1000′ radius was both overbroad and that the wider radius did not better protect school children. Additionally, the court recognized that studies have also shown that the 1000′ school zone radius unfairly impacts those living in urban communities, where almost every location is within 1000′ feet of a school. The Court also acknowledged that these studies found that urban areas have higher minority populations, and therefore the law disproportionately impacted minorities as well.

The Court noted that the legislative history of the 2012 crime bill indicated that the legislature was aware of these issues, and, by amending the statute, chose to reduce the school zone to improve the problems and shortcomings of the statute. In light of the legislature’s purpose in enacting the amendments, the Court ultimately concluded that it would be “repugnant to the context of the same statute” to apply it solely prospectively, and that the new 300′ school zone radius should be applied retroactively to all school zone charges pending at the time the statute was enacted.

This new case when taken with the Court’s decision in Galvin bodes well for the issue of the retroactivity of the new “raise the age” legislation making all crimes committed by 17 year olds part of the juvenile system rather than the adult system. Right now there are still several cases pending in adult court where 17 year old children are charged as adults because their alleged crimes dated prior to Governor Patrick signing the “raise the age” legislation. In my view based on the Court’s reasoning in Galvin and now Bradley, it is my hope (and perhaps an increasingly likely hope) we will see a decision making the raise the age legislation retroactive sometime in 2014.

If you or a loved one is facing a minimum mandatory sentence associated with a drug related charge, or a school zone charge, you will need a defense attorney who understands the impact of the amended statute and who can help you use the changes to your advantage. Attorney Daniel Cappetta can explain the current state of the law and assess how it applies to your case. Call today for a free consultation.