The state’s top court this week paved the way for the return of fines and fees to tens of thousands of defendants whose convictions were vacated in the wake of twin Massachusetts drug lab scandals.
The Supreme Judicial Court ordered the return of more than $8,000 to two individuals whose cases were dismissed in 2017 because of the unprecedented tampering by former chemist Annie Dookhan. The ruling also mandates the return of fees to some of the nearly 40,000 individuals whose cases were thrown out due to the Dookhan scandal and the separate tampering scandal at the state’s Amherst drug lab.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled the refunds were required under a US Supreme Court ruling from April 2017, Nelson v. Colorado, which was published the same day most Dookhan-related convictions were vacated.
“The overriding principle is that where a defendant has been ordered to make a payment because of a conviction, the invalidation of that conviction erases the state’s claim to that payment,” the court ruled.
The first of the two “Dookhan defendants,” Stephanie Green, will get back more than $5,000 in fines and another $1,560 in probation fees following a 2008 conviction. The second, Jose Martinez, will be refunded $1,560 he paid in monthly probation fees.
“Stephanie Green, Jose Martinez, and tens of thousands of other individuals harmed by the Commonwealth’s drug lab scandals can never be made whole for the loss of liberty and dire personal consequences they suffered as a result of their flawed convictions,” said Benjamin Keehn, a public defender with the Committee for Public Counsel Services who represented Green and Martinez.
“Thankfully, with today’s SJC decision, they can at least get their money back,” Keehn said.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office largely agreed that drug lab defendants should get refunds.
“It has always been our position that certain fines and fees should be returned to defendants whose criminal charges have been dismissed, and we welcome the court’s clear and helpful analysis of those issues today,” said Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Healey.
The court acknowledged its decision will be difficult to execute, particularly for older cases, and that the ruling “may unleash a flood” of refund motions.
Once motions are filed, prosecutors have the burden of showing a given refund request is invalid, the court ruled. Many of those requesting refunds may not have attorneys, the court reasoned, and prosecutors are “better positioned” to access court records necessary to support or dispute a given claim.
Courts will return only fines or fees that were paid “solely because of an invalidated conviction.” Martinez, for instance, was also convicted for unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle but will get back only the portion of fees he paid because of his vacated drug charges.
The court also declined to refund more than $1,400 in cash seized when police searched Green’s home. Because prosecutors initiated proceedings to forfeit these funds separate from its criminal prosecution against Green, the court ruled Green must litigate separately to get this money back.
For now, the SJC declined to implement a “global remedy” rather than a case-by-case protocol. The court relied largely on an as-yet-unsettled federal class action lawsuit filed by three other “Dookhan defendants” in February.
“These defendants and their families were forced to spend money on fines and fees that would have otherwise gone towards basic necessities,” said Luke Ryan, a Northampton attorney representing the three plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.
The court ordered Healey and public defenders to report on the status of the federal suit within six months.
Individuals who want to find out if they might be entitled to a refund of fees can call the CPCS drug lab hotline at 888-999-2881.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the drug lab hotline number. Incorrect information was initially supplied to the Globe.
Shawn Musgrave can be reached at email@example.com. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.