BBA Amicus Advocates for Resolution in Dookhan Scandal

On Monday, the BBA filed an amicus brief in Bridgeman v. District Attorney (SJC-12157), the latest case pertaining to the misconduct of Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Hinton Drug Laboratory chemist Annie Dookhan.  Our brief, written by our Amicus Committee Co-Chairs, Elizabeth Ritvo (Brown Rudnick) and Anthony Scibelli (Barclay Damon) argues for a global solution, that the Court should vacate, without prejudice, the adverse disposition on all drug related charges where Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist, but that the Commonwealth should be granted a period of at least one year, or longer as the Court deems appropriate, to allow the District Attorneys to re-prosecute individual charges.  Any charges not re-prosecuted within that time period should be automatically dismissed with prejudice and further prosecution barred.

This solution places the burden on the Commonwealth, rather than on Dookhan defendants, in addressing the adverse disposition affected by Dookhan’s misconduct.  It is based in principles central to the BBA’s mission – access to justice and the fair administration of justice.

Background

In 2012, stories of misconduct at the Hinton Drug Lab first broke.  Soon, news stories revealed that Dookhan had engaged in criminal misconduct regarding drug evidence seized in connection with thousands of Massachusetts state and federal criminal cases.  Specifically, Dookhan mishandled drug samples, failed to conduct tests on samples she nevertheless labelled as controlled substances, contaminated unknown suspected drug samples with known drugs before running tests to identify those unknown drugs, falsified evidence logs and reports regarding drug testing and quality control steps regarding laboratory equipment, and bypassed mandatory office procedures.

In December 2012, Dookhan was indicted on 27 criminal counts, including obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence, and perjury.  In November 2013, she pled guilty to all 27 counts and was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison, from which she was recently released.  In the meantime, the entire justice system has struggled with how to handle the fallout.  Dookhan could not identify the specific cases where she engaged in all of this malfeasance, and it has been impossible to independently determine the specific cases at issue.  Some affected cases involve multiple defendants; some defendants have multiple affected cases.  The most recent numbers submitted by the ACLU and CPCS indicate that there are about 24,000 outstanding cases with adverse dispositions (conviction, plea, CWOF) where Dookhan was either the primary or secondary chemist.  These numbers were derived from lists submitted by all seven of the DA offices that prosecuted Dookhan cases.  These cases involve about 18,000 individual defendants (some have multiple cases).

Effect on the Justice System

In response to the Dookhan scandal, in October 2012, the Chief Justice of the Superior Court assigned specific judges in seven counties to preside over special “drug lab sessions” to deal with post-conviction filings by defendants who had cases where Dookhan worked on controlled substance samples.  From October 15 to November 28, 2012, the judges presiding over the drug lab sessions held 589 hearings, which placed a significant burden on the courts.  In November 2012, the Chief Justice of the Superior Court also appointed five retired Superior Court judges as “special judicial magistrates” to preside over post-conviction proceedings regarding the Dookhan scandal.  The enumerated powers of these special magistrates included handling arraignments, setting bail, supervising discovery, and conducting hearings on motions.  Over six weeks in the fall of 2012, Superior Court judges held 589 hearings, and in the following three months, special magistrates held over 900 hearings.  These hearings were targeted to handle cases of affected individuals who were still in custody at the time, and primarily dealt with motions to either vacate or stay sentences.  However, these numbers (though very significant and reflective of the hard work of the magistrates), involved only a relatively small fraction of the cases affected by the Dookhan scandal.  The outcomes of these cases were mixed, with some defendants receiving stays and vacated convictions, others not, and some cases pleading out.

As these cases started to be litigated, several appellate decisions by the SJC created at least a partial framework for resolving the cases.

In Commonwealth v. Charles, 466 Mass. 63 (2013), the SJC resolved certain questions concerning the powers of the special magistrates.  For example the SJC held that the special magistrates did not have authority to allow a defendant’s motion to stay the execution of his sentence pending a motion for a new trial, but could report findings of fact and law to a judge of the Superior Court (who did have such authority).  Also, special magistrates could conduct plea colloquies and report findings about the voluntariness of the proposed pleas (and the factual basis for the pleas) to a judge of the Superior Court.

In Commonwealth v. Scott, 467 Mass. 336 (2014), the defendant pled to sufficient facts and entered into a plea agreement with the Commonwealth.  He was charged with possession of cocaine, and the Hinton drug lab certificate identified the controlled substance as cocaine.  After the Dookhan scandal came to light, the defendant filed a motion to vacate his plea, which was granted by the lower court.  The Commonwealth appealed, arguing in part that the defendant has an obligation to show that there was specific misconduct in his case, i.e., that Dookhan had falsified his test results in some way.  In response, the SJC held two things. First, in any case where Dookhan signed a drug certificate as either the primary or secondary chemist in a defendant’s case, the defendant is entitled to a conclusive presumption that Dookhan’s misconduct occurred in that case, that it was egregious, and that it is attributable to the Commonwealth.  Second, the defendant must still demonstrate a reasonable probability that knowledge of Dookhan’s misconduct would have materially influenced his decision to tender a guilty plea.  The defendant’s case was remanded for proceedings on the second issue.  In short, the SJC established a global standard for finding misconduct, but still required a specific showing that knowledge of the misconduct would have influenced his decision to plea.

In the first Bridgeman case (Bridgeman v. Suffolk DA, 471 Mass. 465 (2015)), the SJC established other principles to guide resolution of the Dookhan cases.  In that case, the petitioners filed suit asking the SJC to protect defendants challenging an adverse disposition in any Dookhan case from facing more severe charges or greater punishment.  In response, the SJC held that “a defendant who has been granted a new trial based on Dookhan’s misconduct at the Hinton drug lab cannot be charged with a more serious offense than that of which he or she initially was convicted under the terms of a plea agreement and, if convicted again, cannot be given a more severe sentence than that which originally was imposed.”  However, the SJC specifically declined to enter a “global remedy” under its general superintendence powers, and declined to vacate all the Dookhan adverse dispositions.

Bridgeman II

We are now in the second Bridgeman case, SJC-12157.  It was born out of issues regarding a notice sent to all Dookhan defendants.  In August 2016, the various DAs sent the SJC, CPCS and the ACLU a notice it intended to send to all Dookhan defendants with an adverse disposition.  CPCS did not agree with this notice, or its wording.  This was a highly contentious issue and CPCS contends that the notice was “so poorly drafted that it will have the predictable consequence of limiting individual cases to a bare minimum. . . It is a poison pill.  Anyone who receives it could be misled, confused or both.”  Their opening brief in Bridgeman II lays out eight “peculiarities” with which it takes issue, including confusing language, lack of important information about rights of defendants and the outcomes of prior cases in the Dookhan scandal limiting their potential exposure, a requirement to contact the DAs for more information even though the DAs are adverse to the defendant, and that the included Spanish translation is unintelligible.

In response, CPCS and the ACLU filed a single justice petition on behalf of Bridgeman and others, asking that the single justice reserve and report the following question to the Court – “whether all cases involving misconduct by Annie Dookhan should be dismissed or subjected to a court imposed deadline.”  This is the second Bridgeman case (SJC-12157).  In short, the petitioners are once again seeking a global remedy.  (The petitioners also filed an emergency motion to stop the notice from issuing, but that motion was denied).

The single justice reserved and reported this matter to the full SJC with oral argument scheduled for November 8.  On September 16, the SJC requested amicus briefs on:

Whether the persons who were convicted of drug-related charges and in whose cases former Hinton Drug Lab Assistant Analyst Annie Dookhan signed the certificate of drug analysis as the analyst, who are collectively referred to as the “Dookhan defendants,” are entitled to a comprehensive remedy, including, whether all cases involving misconduct by Dookhan should be dismissed or subjected to a court-imposed deadline.

BBA Amicus Brief

On October 24, the BBA filed an amicus brief in the case calling for a global solution placing the burden on the Commonwealth to re-prosecute within a set time period (to be determined by the Court) any cases that have not been re-adjudicated since 2012, when the scandal first came to light.  If cases are not re-prosecuted within that time period, the brief calls for their dismissal with prejudice, barring further prosecution.

The brief explains that the BBA’s interest in the case is twofold: to facilitate access to justice for all defendants in criminal cases and to ensure the timely, fair, and efficient administration of justice.  Not only will this global solution secure justice for the defendants, but it will also start to relieve the significant burden on the justice system, currently facing the prospect of addressing more than 20,000 unresolved cases individually.

We advocate that the burden in this case must rest with the Commonwealth to re-prosecute certain cases rather than on individual defendants to come forward because the widespread and systemic nature of Dookhan’s misconduct implicates public confidence in the government and justice system.  Furthermore, we express a number of concerns about the current proposition of sending notice to impacted defendants, requesting action by those wishing to challenge their adverse dispositions including:

  • The attenuated timeframe of the case makes the prospect of sending notice to individual defendants unreliable.
  • Even if they should receive adequate notice, it is likely many defendants would not understand their rights or what course of action they should take in challenging their adverse dispositions.
  • Defendants clearing the first two hurdles may still face significant hurdle in challenging their cases because the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) will struggle to provide attorneys for each of their cases (see CPCS/ACLU Bridgeman Brief, pp. 24-32).

While the Courts have worked admirably and diligently to handle these cases individually, now that the full and pervasive scope of Dookhan’s misconduct is more fully understood, it is clearly an exceptional circumstance meriting the SJC’s use of its extraordinary powers to impose a global remedy.  We conclude that “the net result of the current process will be that a certain and significant number of adverse dispositions that were obtained by ‘egregious’ misconduct attributable to the Commonwealth will remain intact.  Thus, by default, many Dookhan defendants will continue to suffer the consequences of ‘egregious’ government misconduct and, absent a global remedy, such misconduct will not be remedied or abated in any systemic or comprehensive way.”  This outcome is unacceptable – it is inconsistent with due process and undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system.

We look forward to watching oral argument on November 8 and a decision from the SJC in the following months.  We will keep you updated on the latest developments in this case and the work of our Amicus Committee.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association