In Commonwealth v. Peterson, the SJC affirmed the dismissal of a park zone charge against the defendant. Police officers observed a vehicle stopped at a red light at an intersection that was within one hundred feet of a public park. The defendant was a passenger in the vehicle. “The three officers learned through their onboard computer that the vehicle’s inspection sticker had expired. When the light turned green, the vehicle proceeded through the intersection. The officers activated their lights and sirens and stopped the vehicle a short distance away, … at which point the vehicle was no longer within one hundred feet of [the] [p]ark.” As one of the officers stood near the vehicle, he “noticed the defendant remove a clear plastic bag from his left front pants pocket and drop it on the floorboard behind him…. The officer opened the front passenger door to investigate, and a struggle ensued when the defendant pushed him away.” After the defendant and the other occupants were removed from the vehicle, “the officers searched the vehicle and found the clear plastic bag. It contained … what appeared to be ‘crack’ cocaine.” The defendant was arrested and charged with g possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and committing a drug offense within one hundred feet of a public park. “The defendant sought to dismiss the park zone charge, arguing that the statute is unconstitutional as applied to him, and that prosecution in these circumstances would violate his right to due process, ‘given that he was a passenger in a vehicle driven by another individual and his presence within one hundred feet of a park zone was entirely fortuitous’ and not the sort of circumstance the Legislature intended to reach in enacting the school zone statute.” “The judge allowed the motion for the reasons argued by the defendant” and the Commonwealth appealed.
In its decision, the SJC noted that “at issue in this appeal is the extent of the strict liability aspect of … c.94C, §32J,” i.e., the statutory language providing that “lack of knowledge of school [r park boundaries shall not be a defense to any person who violates the provisions of this section.” “Specifically, we are asked to determine whether the Legislature possibly could have intended the school zone statute to apply to someone like the defendant, who, albeit in possession of drugs with intent to distribute, does nothing more than simply travel as a passenger in a motor vehicle on a public roadway past a school, park, or playground.” The Court concluded that “given the Legislature’s stated reasons for enacting the statute to protect children from the harmful impact of drug dealing, we do not think the Legislature possibly intended … c.94C, §32J, to apply to an individual who merely passes momentarily by a school or a park while traveling on a public roadway in an automobile driven by another person, which would not have stopped but for a change in a traffic signal…. There was no evidence that the defendant’s momentary presence as he passed by the area in these circumstances posed any real or potential risk to children or anyone else in the park.” The Court “emphasized that this ruling is limited to the specific facts presented here and to the predicate offense of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.”