Monday, November 28, 2005

Court of Appeals: "straight line" method used to determine distance from school for purposes of drug prosecution

People v Robbins, ___ NY3d ___, 2005 WL 3108205

See what happens when you take a few days off for the holiday? Not only do I still have a leftover Court of Appeals decision from the November 21, 2005 packet to blog about, but the Appeals handed down two more significant criminal decisions the next day, November 22. One of those two new decisions, People v Carvajal, is a true monster involving a coast-to-coast drug conspiracy and a thorny multi-state "constructive possession" issue. For tonight, I will post on the simpler of the two decisions, People v Robbins (available here).

First, some brief background. New York (like most states) punishes those who sell drugs on or near school grounds more harshly than other dealers. In order to fall under the reach of the enhanced statute, the drugs must be sold within 1000 feet of a school zone. The question arises: how do you measure the 1000 feet? As the crow flies, or as the junky walks? The Appeals resolved that question in People v Robbins. Simple answer: the distance is measured by the "straight-line" method, or as the crow flies. From the opinion:

[T]he intent of the statute was to circumscribe a fixed geographical area, without regard to whether that area might contain obstacles around which people might have to detour. [...] Defendant's contrary reading would introduce uncertainty and open the statute to a charge of vagueness. Plainly, guilt under the statute cannot depend on whether a particular building in a person's path to a school happens to be open to the public or locked at the time of a drug sale. At a minimum, '[r]equiring speculation about pedestrian routes would create uncertainty in a statute which was meant to establish clear lines of demarcation.'"

People v Robinson, 2005 WL 3108205.)

No surprise here: given the choice between an interpretation of the statute that was unworkable (using the so-called "pedestrian method" to measure the distance) and one that provides concrete guidance (the "straight line" method), the Court of Appeals chose the workable solution. I would add more, but I'm a little late on this one, and the Volokh and Crimlaw are all over it (here and here).