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SJC Rules that Dookhan Defendants With Vacated Convictions Will Not Be Reimbursed for Court Costs

money-shot-1559546-300x200In Commonwealth v. Martin, the SJC addressed whether defendants whose convictions were vacated as a result of the Annie Dookhan drug lab scandal should be reimbursed for court fees paid prior to the allowance of the motion to vacate. The SJC decided against such reimbursement, stating that “there [was] no statutory authority” for the return of such monies.

The background of the case is as follows: in 2011, the defendant pleaded guilty to a drug offense and received a probationary sentence whose conditions required the payment of certain fees mandated by statute: “a one-time victim-witness assessment of fifty dollars, as well as a monthly probation supervision fee of sixty dollars and a monthly victim services surcharge of five dollars (collectively, probation fees).” One year later, “after the revelation of misconduct at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute …, a judge granted the defendant’s unopposed motion to withdraw his guilty plea on the ground that Annie Dookhan, the subsequently discredited analyst at the center of the misconduct allegations, [had] performed the analysis of the substances seized during the defendant’s arrest.” Upon the granting of the defendant’s motion to withdraw his plea, “[t]he Commonwealth entered a nolle prosequi on the underlying complaint. Thereafter, the defendant filed a motion for return of property, including probation supervision fees ($780) paid during the term of probation and the victim-witness assessment (fifty dollars).” The motion was denied.

In its decision, the SJC rejected the defendant’s argument “that the language in [G.L. c.258B,] §8[,] requiring the return of the victim-witness assessment where a conviction is ‘overturned on appeal’ also applie[d] to this case where the conviction was vacated as a consequence of the judge’s order granting the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea.” The Court explained that “[h]ere, the defendant did not appeal from his conviction; rather, his conviction was vacated after a judge … granted postconviction relief through Mass. R. Crim. P. 30, … and the Commonwealth subsequently entered a nolle prosequi. That procedural difference is dispositive here. The plain language of §8 specifically limits persons entitled to a refund to those whose conviction or adjudication of delinquency was overturned on appeal.” The Court also rejected the defendant’s contention that G.L. c.276, §87A, “provide[s] [a] statutory basis for the return of probation fees where a defendant’s conviction is subsequently vacated.” In the Court’s view, the statute “is silent as to a defendant’s entitlement” to recoup probation fees.

Similarly unavailing was the defendant’s argument, pursuant to equitable principles, that the victim-witness assessment and the probation fees were recoupable on the ground that the underlying conviction was void. The SJC opined that “[t]he defendant’s conviction was merely voidable, not void ab initio.” “[T]he judge merely vacated the conviction to allow for a new trial, and the Commonwealth declined to further prosecute the matter.”

Finally, the SJC rejected “the defendant’s assertion that the statutory probation fees he paid [under c.276, §87A,] were in fact impermissible financial penalties or fines.” The Court opined “that §87A probation fees are nonpunitive regulatory fees,” i.e., payments in exchange for services to the probationer, “rather than punitive fines.”

Although the SJC has now made it clear that defendants who were the victims of Annie Dookhan’s misconduct will not be reimbursed for various court fees, if you or a loved one was convicted of a drug offense and the drugs were tested at the Hinton Lab, you may still be eligible for some legal relief.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is an experienced and skilled attorney who will help you figure out what steps you can take to make sure that you have not been treated unjustly.  Contact him today for a free consultation.