A defendant whose case was dismissed on account of the misconduct of the chemist who analyzed the substances seized in Defendant’s case, is entitled to refund of the drug analysis fee.
- Steven Topazio wrote this January 10, 2020 at 10:37 pm
In Commonwealth v. Jermaine Watt (August 20, 2019), the Supreme Judicial Court held that due process principles required a refund of a drug analysis fee but did not require a refund of other fees claimed by the defendant after the indictments against him were dismissed. In this case, the defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of distribution of cocaine and was sent to jail. Watt later sought a new trial when he learned of the misconduct of Sonja Farak, the chemist at the Department of Public Health’s State Laboratory Institute in Amherst who analyzed the drugs in his case.
Sonja Farak, pleaded guilty in 2014 of stealing drugs and tampering with evidence, setting off a second scandal after she revealed she was using crack cocaine and other drugs while analyzing evidence at the state lab. Sonja Farak followed chemist, Annie Dookhan, who was discovered in 2012 to have been falsifying her analysis reports to police and the courts. The court held that Watt is not entitled to a refund of the account maintenance and administration fees he requested. Unlike probation fees, victim-witness assessments, restitution, and fines paid as penalties, the court noted that the fees at issue in the Watt case were not ordered solely as a consequence of the defendant’s convictions, but withdrawn from his inmate account in connection with certain financial transactions. The court ruled that they cannot fairly be said to be part of the penalty imposed by the court as a punishment for the offenses of which the defendant was convicted.
In 2010, Jermaine Watt pleaded guilty to two counts of distribution of cocaine based on the unreliable chemist reports of Sonja Farak. He was sentenced to concurrent State prison terms of from three to five years. In addition, he paid a drug analysis fee of $150, which was imposed pursuant to G. L. c. 280, § 6B. He filed a motion for a new trial, seeking to withdraw his guilty plea due to the misconduct of Sonja Farak. (Committee for Public Counsel Servs. v. Attorney Gen., 480 Mass. 700 (2018)). That motion was initially denied, but ultimately, after the defendant was released at the end of his sentence, the indictments were dismissed with prejudice on the Commonwealth’s motion. Watt thereafter filed a motion seeking a refund of fees associated with the vacated convictions, namely, the drug analysis fee and certain fees incurred on the inmate account he was obligated to maintain while he was incarcerated.
Watt argued that the account fees must also be refunded under G. L. c. 278, § 14, which provides:
“No prisoner or person under recognizance, acquitted by verdict or discharged because no indictment has been found against him, or for want of prosecution, shall be liable for any costs or fees or for any charge for subsistence while he was in custody.”
By its terms, the Supreme Judicial Court noted that the statute applied to three categories of people: those who are “acquitted by verdict,” those who are “discharged because no indictment has been found,” and those who are “discharged . . . for want of prosecution.” Each category consists of individuals in pretrial status who are eventually released without having been found guilty of any offense. The court further noted that statute does not apply to those who, like the defendant here, were convicted of one or more offenses. As the defendant was not in pretrial status when the fees were incurred, the court ruled that G. L. c. 278, § 14, does not apply to him.