Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that defendants who pled guilty in cases where Annie Dookhan signed the certificate of drug analysis are entitled to a conclusive presumption of egregious misconduct by the government. The case, Commonwealth v. Scott
, is the first to extensively discuss the findings of the State Police investigation into the Hinton Drug Laboratory and Dookhan’s evidence tampering. In late November, Dookhan pled guilty to 27 counts of misleading investigators, filing false reports, and tampering with evidence and was sentenced to three to five years in prison. It is estimated Dookhan was involved in testing samples in over 40,000 cases and her misconduct raises serious questions regarding the validity of thousands of criminal convictions.
In Commonwealth v. Scott
, the defendant, Rakim D. Scott, was arrested in late April 2011 and charged with possession of a class B controlled substance, pursuant to G.L. c. 94C, §§ 34. The substance, believed to be crack cocaine, tested positive for cocaine at the Hinton Drug Lab. Annie Dookhan signed the drug certificate as the “Assistant Analyst.” Before Dookhan’s misconduct was made public, the defendant admitted to sufficient facts to warrant a finding of guilt and the judge sentenced him to a continuance without a finding for twelve months. During his probationary period, the defendant was charged with a subsequent crime that led to a probation violation. Thereafter, the defendant filed a motion to vacate his original admission to sufficient facts, which the trial judge allowed.
A defendant seeking to withdraw a guilty plea as a result of government misconduct hasthe high burden of demonstrating (1) egregious misconduct by the government in his particular case and (2) that the misconduct materially influenced his decision to plead guilty or admit guilt. In cases where Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist, the Supreme Judicial Court held that “the defendant is entitled to a conclusive presumption that Dookhan’s misconduct occurred in his case, that it was egregious, and that it is attributable to the Commonwealth.” The presumption eliminates a major hurdle for defendants because without it, the defendant would need to show that there was wrongdoing during the testing in his particular case
. Under Scott
, if the defendant can furnish a drug certificate signed by Dookhan as the primary or secondary chemist, the defendant has satisfied the first prong of the test.
However, the defendant still has the burden of proving that the misconduct materially affected his decision to plea. To satisfy this requirement in Dookhan cases, the court stated that “the defendant must demonstrate a reasonably probability that had he would not have pleaded guilty had he known of Dookhan’s misconduct.” It is clear that Dookhan’s misconduct would cause anyone facing drug charges to think twice about entering enter into a plea agreement. However, the question is whether the defendant would have rejected the plea offer and instead gone ahead with a trial. There are many factors with varying degrees of importance judges will consider including: the defendant’s prior record; the penalty the defendant was facing; how favorable the terms of the offer were; whether the Commonwealth possessed other circumstantial evidence that supported the charge; whether the drug charges were merely a small competent of the over-all plea; or whether the defendant was indicted on additional charges. Ultimately, the analysis is heavily based on the facts and circumstances surrounding each case and the factors that may have influenced the defendant’s decision at the time of the guilty plea.
In Commonwealth v. Scott
, the drug certificate signed by Dookhan by itself entitled him to the conclusive presumption of egregious misconduct by the government. The Court, however, remanded the case back to the trial court judge determine whether there is a reasonable probability that he would not have pled guilty had he known of Dookhan’s misconduct.
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