In late November of this year the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided the case of Commonwealth v. Humberto H. The issue on appeal was 1) whether there existed sufficient evidence to sustain the complaint and 2) whether the judge had to arraign the defendant prior to dismissing the complaint.
Here is a brief history of the proceedings. The defendant was charged with possession with the intent to distribute marijuana. Prior to arraignment he moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that there was an absence of probable cause sufficient to sustain the charges. The judge agreed with the defense that the case should be dismissed. However, he believed that the defendant needed to be arraigned for him to do so. The defendant was thus arraigned after which the case was dismissed. The government appealed the judge’s ruling.
The court found as facts the following:
In January of 2011 the defendant entered his high school late. Upon his entry authorities smelled a strong odor of marijuana on him. The defendant was then confronted and subsequently searched. Found in his possession were five bags of marijuana that the police believed he possessed for the purpose of distribution. The initial arraignment was continued in order to give the defense the opportunity to file a motion to dismiss prior to arraignment. The motion was filed and allowed but only after the accused was arraigned.
In its opinion the court found dismissal of the complaint proper. The mere presence of five bags of marijuana without more fails to support probable cause to believe that the defendant possessed the intent to distribute. The weight of the drug was minimal. Its street value was nominal at best. There were no drug distribution paraphernalia in the possession of the accused and he made no admissions supporting the issuance of the complaint. This aspect of the Humberto H. opinion was not novel. Rather, it was corroborative of established case law requiring the prosecution to show more than the presence of multiple packages of drugs to support a complaint alleging the intent to distribute.
The next issue decided by the Court made new law in Massachusetts. Now, at least in the juvenile courts judges can dismiss cases prior to arraignment. The rationale for the decision is interesting. The Court voiced concern that once arraigned the juvenile will have a court record showing involvement with the system. This is a permanent record that can be accessed by certain designated authorities. At subsequent proceedings, particularly bail hearings, prosecutors often argue that the defendant has “multiple entries” on his record regardless of how those matters were disposed. In conferring this new right to juvenile defendants the Court further held that this issue has been addressed in other cases without having been definitively decided and the time is now ripe for settling this issue. Finally, this issue was believed to be one of public importance that required a resolution.
Here is what remains unresolved. Is this opinion going to be made applicable to adult cases? I believe it will. Right now, some judges will dismiss complaints in the adult court on motions prior to arraignment. Others will not. I imagine we will now see a trend where these motions are allowed prior to arraignment. I also expect this matter to be litigated in the appellate courts shortly as well.