In Commonwealth v Ortiz, decided earlier today the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a conviction for drug distribution notwithstanding the failure of the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the substance charged was in fact cocaine. The facts of the case are as follows: In June of 2010 a Weymouth, Massachusetts police officer was conducting an undercover surveillance during which she observed what she believed to be a drug deal. One week later she saw the same car and same driver allegedly engage in identical activity. This time the officer approached the buyer and found her in possession of cocaine. A support team was notified and the car, being driven by Ortiz was pulled over. Ortiz was arrested and charged with distributing cocaine and a school zone violation. After a jury trial he was convicted.
The prosecutor and the defense lawyer agreed prior to trial to stipulate that the substance was cocaine. During the trial the substance was referred to as cocaine however at no time was a certificate of analysis produced nor was the stipulation offered by the assistant district attorney, the defense attorney or the judge. The judge did reference the stipulation during his jury charge. On appeal Ortiz argued that since the stipulation was not offered before the prosecutor rested his case the judge should have allowed the motion for a required finding of not guilty. The defendant further argued that a stipulation to an element of the offense should be in writing and signed by the defendant. Alternatively, the stipulation must be the subject of a colloquy. In rejecting the appeal and affirming the conviction the Supreme Judicial Court refused to answer the question as to whether the failure to enter the stipulation constituted error. Rather, the Court held that reaching that issue was not necessary since there was no substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice. Similarly, the challenge to the absence of a signed stipulation and the absence of a colloquy did not warrant a reversal of the conviction. However, this case has prospective application regarding stipulations to an element of the case. Going forward, such stipulation should be submitted to the jury prior to the government resting its case.
From my perspective this decision seems to relieve the district attorney of its
burden of proving all elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Even though there was an agreement that the substance was cocaine the agreement
itself was never conveyed to the jury. Thus, legally there was no adequate proof that the substance was in fact what was charged. It was incumbent upon the prosecutor or the judge to make this known to the jury prior to the final submission of all evidence.
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