On August 2, 2012, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law an omnibus crime bill that had been passed by legislature. The bill consisted of many disparate crime-related provisions, including a new “three strikes” statute called Melissa’s Law. Within Melissa’s Law was an important provision that drug policy reformers had been advocating for years; namely, the law included a reduction in the size and time requirements for drug violations that take place within school zones.
School zone provisions essentially add on an extra sentence for drug crimes that occur within what the legislature designates as a school zone. The previous law set the boundary at a 1,000 feet radius of any school. Criminal defense attorneys and justice reform advocates pointed out for years that, in parts of Boston and other Massachusetts cities, it was nearly impossible to not be within 1,000 feet of a school at any given time. In addition, the law made no distinction between drug crimes that took place during school hours and those that did not. The statute effectively allowed prosecutors to charge a large percentage of drug offenders with school zone violations, thus increasing the Commonwealth’s plea bargaining power and the length of sentences.
The 2012 amendment to the school zone provision reduced the area of the zones from 1,000 feet to 300 feet from a school. The new statute’s restrictions encompass headstart facilities, elementary, vocational, and secondary schools. The law now also provides a time exception, by excluding drug crimes that take place between midnight and 5 a.m. from the school zone statute. Reform advocates believe these changes better capture the spirit of the original law, by focusing on keeping drugs away from places where children congregate, during the time of day when children are likely to be there.
Anyone caught possessing or selling illicit drugs (under other provisions of the Massachusetts Controlled Substances Act) between 5 a.m. and midnight, and within 300 feet of a school or 100 feet of a public park, can be charged with violating the school zone provision. The new law actually increased the mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of violating the school zone provision. The minimum sentence these drug offenders can expect is a two year jail term along with a $1,000 fine. Defendants cannot use lack of knowledge of school boundaries as a defense when they are charged with a school zone violation.
Under the new statute, an offender convicted of a school zone violation is generally eligible for parole after serving half of the maximum sentence (15 years) he could have received. However, offenders who utilized guns during their crimes, who supervised another felon, who sold drugs to minors, or who supervised minors in selling drugs, are not eligible for parole, as these are considered aggravating factors. A Supreme Judicial Court decision from late last year found that the new law applies retroactively, thus providing relief for some defendants and prisoners.
If you have been charged with violating Massachusetts drug laws, you should immediately seek out the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact Edward R. Molari, Attorney at Law, today for a confidential consultation.
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SUPREME COURT RULES THAT SCHOOL ZONE AMENDMENT APPLIES RETROACTIVELY