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Farak Defendants that Qualified for Enhanced Sentences Are Not Subject to Harsher Penalties When Re-Negotiating Pleas

gavel-2-1236453-300x200In Commonwealth v. Claudio, the SJC ruled that where “a guilty plea [was] negotiated by a defendant who qualified for an enhanced sentence due to a subsequently vacated predicate offense that had been tainted by [state laboratory chemist Sonja] Farak’s misconduct,” “such a defendant may challenge the guilty plea without being exposed to a harsher sentence than that which he received in exchange for his plea.”

The background was as follows. “In 2013, the defendant … was indicted on two counts alleging aggravated statutory rape pursuant to G.L. c.265, §23A. In addition, he was indicted as a habitual criminal pursuant to G.L. c.279, §25(a), with two drug offenses on his prior record as the predicate convictions…. As G.L. c.265, §23A, carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, the defendant was exposed to a mandatory life sentence for a conviction on the aggravated rape charges. In 2015, the defendant accepted a negotiated plea agreement under which he pleaded guilty to lesser charges without the habitual offender enhancements, and received a prison sentence of from six to eight years…. In 2018, the defendant was identified as a so-called ‘Farak defendant.’ His conviction of possession with intent to distribute heroin, based on certificates of drug analysis … signed by Farak, was, therefore, dismissed with prejudice. As the vacated conviction was one of the two predicate offenses relied on for application of the habitual criminal enhancement, the defendant no longer qualified as a habitual criminal. Before seeking to withdraw his guilty plea, which was negotiated in circumstances that now no longer exist, the defendant requested a preliminary ruling from the Superior Court judge that if he were to succeed in withdrawing his plea, he would not be subject to a harsher punishment as the result of a reprosecution of the rape charges than the prison sentence that he received pursuant to the plea agreement.” The judge then reported the following question: “‘Do the protections from harsher punishment established for “Dookhan defendants” [i.e., those whose prosecutions were tainted by the misconduct of Annie Dookhan] in [Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 471 Mass. 465 (2015) (Bridgeman I),] apply to ‘Farak defendants’ who are challenging pleas based upon Farak-related grounds relating to G.L. c.279, [§25(a)], predicate offenses?’”

In response to the judge’s question, the SJC first addressed the remedy it had fashioned for the thousands of Dookhan defendants. The Court stated, “[W]e ultimately declined to vacate [those defendants’] convictions wholesale, reasoning that as ‘serious as [Dookhan’s conduct] was, [it] did not result in irremediable harm’ to defendants’ opportunities to obtain fair trials (quotation and citation omitted). Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 476 Mass. 298, 322 (2017) (Bridgeman II). Further, ‘given the absence of any evidence of misconduct by a prosecutor or an investigator, [we did not] place Dookhan’s misconduct in the category that requires a stronger deterrent than a new trial to avoid the risk of repetition.’ Id.” “[W]e also held that any Dookhan defendant who succeeded in securing a new trial could not be charged with a more serious offense, nor receive a longer sentence than originally imposed (Bridgeman cap). Bridgeman I, 471 Mass. at 477.” Turning to the remedy for Farak defendants, the Court noted that Farak’s misconduct “was larger in scope than Dookhan’s wrongdoing” and “was compounded by the wrongful actions of members of the Attorney General’s office, who failed to investigate thoroughly Farak’s wrongdoing and later deliberately withheld information…. Consequently, in contrast to the remedy created for Dookhan defendants, we determined that for Farak defendants” the proper remedy was dismissal with prejudice of all the drug convictions that had been tainted by Farak’s misconduct. The Court then addressed the “category of Farak defendants for whom the dismissed convictions nevertheless continue to have an adverse effect. That is, there are some defendants, like the defendant here, for whom a Farak conviction was counted as a predicate for enhanced sentencing on subsequent charges prior to its dismissal. As such, the now vacated convictions exposed this category of defendants to enhanced penalties…. [S]uch a result cannot stand.” “[J]ust as we concluded that a cap on subsequent charges and sentences was appropriate for Dookhan defendants …, we now conclude that a similar cap is required in the case of Farak defendants who have been negatively affected, albeit indirectly, by the use of the convictions, tainted by Farak, as predicates for enhanced sentencing.” “[A]ny potential sentence on retrial for a defendant for whom a Farak conviction served as a predicate offense for an enhanced penalty must be capped at the sentence originally imposed when the defendant initially pleaded guilty.” “We further conclude that this cap must be applied retroactively for defendants who have already withdrawn such pleas and subsequently pleaded guilty to more serious charges, who were convicted of more serious charges at a trial, or who received longer sentences than they had for their first pleas.”

If you or a loved one is in a similar situation to the defendant in this case, you deserve the same protections. 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.

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