A man convicted of unlawful possession of a dangerous weapon in Dorchester will have to content himself with having his verdict thrown out, under a Supreme Judicial Court decision that rejected his lawsuit for compensation for what he considered an "erroneous conviction."
The state's highest court ruled it could not consider Omari Peterson's assertion that the evidence in his case would have proven him innocent, and so eligible to sue the state under a a wrongful-conviction law passed in 2004, because a lower court had tossed his conviction on other grounds, making his evidence argument moot.
At issue was a folding knife police found clipped to Peterson's belt after he and other people in his car were ordered out by police at Magnolia and Lawrence streets in Dorchester on Dec. 5, 2008.
Peterson had been pulled over for traffic infractions. Peterson gave officers a valid license and registration, but recognizing some of the people in the car and thinking one was looking nervous, in an area known for gang violence, the officers ordered everybody out, noticed the knife and charged Peterson with illegal possession of a dangerous weapon.
Peterson was convicted and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail, , but the Massachusetts Appeals Court dismissed his conviction in 2014 because the officers had no probable cause to search him since they had no evidence he had just committed or was about to commit a crime - and had presented valid documents to the officers after being pulled over. Because it tossed the case on probable-cause reasons, the appellate court didn't rule on Peterson's claim that the knife was, in fact, legal and of the sort you could buy at any number of stores in and around Boston.
In its ruling today, the SJC said Peterson's dismissal was not covered under the 2004 "erroneous conviction" law because of that. Police are not allowed to search somebody or order them out of a car without probable cause, but that has nothing to do with a person's innocence or guilt for whatever they were charged with, the court said. It compared his case to that of Shawn Drumgold, whose conviction for the murder of a young teen was overturned due to questions about the veracity of two witnesses who pinned the crime on him.
And while, in Peterson's case, the question of his innocence might hinge on whether the knife was legal, the court said there's nothing in the erroneous-conviction law that makes people eligible to sue the state if their convictions are overturned on non-innocence issues and the courts therefore never rule on the evidence in question.
We conclude that Peterson's conviction was not overturned on grounds tending to establish his innocence,
thereby rendering him ineligible for compensation under [the law].
In a concurring opinion, Justice Ralph Gants agreed on the issue of dismissing Peterson's suit, but acknowledged the unfairness of this:
[I]f Peterson is correct that his possession of the knife was not a crime, there is the additional unfairness that he is denied the opportunity to seek compensation for his wrongful conviction only because he suffered a separate constitutional violation that, when considered alone, was sufficient to require the dismissal of the criminal complaint.
A lesson learned from this appeal is that, in the absence of corrective legislation, appellate courts in criminal cases need to be mindful of the practical consequences of not reaching a defendant's claim that the evidence at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to permit a guilty verdict, where reversal of the conviction on this ground would tend to establish the innocence of the individual, see, e.g., Renaud v. Commonwealth, 471 Mass. 315, 319-320 (2015), and where the ground that is the basis for reversal would not.