The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has just ruled that the mere existence of marijuana stored in individual bags on a juvenile does not necessarily establish probable cause for a possession and distribution charge. Massachusetts criminal defense attorneys may use this case to challenge charges of possession with intent to distribute that are over charged and should be charged as mere possessory crimes.
Under state case law, a court may dismiss a complaint if the allegations in the complaint do not establish the identity of the suspect and/or do not show probable cause to charge the suspect. In other words, a complaint must demonstrate reliable information to warrant a reasonable person to believe that the defendant has committed the alleged offense. Although Massachusetts law allows school administrators to invade a student’s privacy and search his belongings without probable cause, the SJC in Commonwealth v. Humberto H. [SJC-11297 (November 26, 2013)] required the State to establish facts in a delinquency complaint supporting probable cause on each essential element of the offense.
The issue in Commonwealth v. Humberto H. was whether there was sufficient information in the complaint to establish probable cause that the juvenile possessed marijuana with the intent to distribute. Unlike mere possession of marijuana – which is only a civil infraction (if not more than an ounce) – possession with intent to distribute is a criminal offense punishable by law. In Humberto H.’s case, a school administrator and a school police officer stopped Humberto when they detected an odor of marijuana as he entered the school late one day. They then searched Humberto and found five small plastic bags of marijuana. Humberto was arrested complaint charged with possession with intent to distribute. Humberto’s attorney moved to dismiss the complaint before the arraignment so that Humberto’s record would remain clean. The trial judge dismissed the complaint, but only after the charges were recorded in the arraignment.
The SJC made several findings supporting its conclusion that the complaint lacked probable cause. Firstly, the Court stated that the fact that Humberto appeared agitated and defensive during the search does not lead to the inference of his intent to distribute marijuana. It only goes to the inference of guilt of mere possession, since any fifteen year old would feel the same if he only possessed marijuana and was searched by a school administrator in the presence of a police officer. Secondly, the complaint did not mention the search producing evidence of smoking paraphernalia, or other items consistent with distribution, such as empty plastic bags, a scale, a cell phone, or large amounts of cash. Thirdly, even the substance discovered during the search was poorly described in the complaint as only appearing to be marijuana, with a value of $0.00, and without any specified weight or measurement of quantity.
The Court ruled that the mere presence of five unquantified bags of marijuana with a recorded value of $0.00 was not enough evidence. The circumstances simply don’t lend the inference that Humberto possessed marijuana with intent to distribute.
By authorizing judges to dismiss complaints before the juvenile is arraigned, the SJC stated that it is protecting juveniles from being burdened with criminal records due to unsubstantiated complaints. The SJC recognized that the juvenile justice system is primarily rehabilitative, and is geared towards correcting and redeeming delinquent children, rather than criminalizing them.