Definition of “Public Housing Project” Adequately Defined for Purposes of Drug Distribution Statute

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

In a criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut rejected a defendant’s attacks on the statutory definition of “public housing project” for purposes of State narcotics distribution statutes.

Case Background

This case arose from an incident that occurred on September 13, 2007. Police officers went to the defendant’s residence to execute a valid search and seizure warrant related to narcotics activity. When officers identified themselves, the defendant ran inside and locked the door. Once the officers gained entry using a battering ram, they heard a toilet flush and saw the defendant leaving the bathroom. The defendant refused to comply with orders and resisted officer attempts to place him under arrest. Officers discovered two rocks of crack cocaine and assorted pills, digital scales, plastic baggies used in the packaging of drugs, and in excess of $1,400 cash.

The defendant was charged with and convicted of possession of cocaine, possession of narcotics with intent to sell within 1500 feet of a housing project, and interfering with an officer. On appeal, he claimed that the State did not present sufficient evidence establishing nearby residential housing as a public housing project.

Defendant Contests Classification as a “Public Housing Project”

Under Connecticut General Statutes § 21a-278a(b), a person is prohibited from transporting or possessing with the intent to sell or dispense controlled substances within fifteen-hundred feet of a designated public housing project. Pursuant to this statute, public housing project means “dwelling accommodations operated as a state or federally subsidized multi-family housing project by a housing authority, nonprofit corporation or municipal developer.”

At trial, one officer testified that the residential housing was “a federally subsidized, elderly/disabled housing complex” that was run by the city’s housing authority. Another officer explained that the neighborhood was “an elderly apartment complex owned and operated by the [city’s] Housing Authority.” In stark contrast, nothing on the record suggested that the property in question was “anything other than a public housing project.” Therefore, the defendant’s claim failed.

Defendant Claims Unconstitutional Vagueness

The defendant further contested that the statute’s definition of “public housing project” was unconstitutionally vague. To prevail on a void for vagueness claim, the defendant has to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that “[he] had inadequate notice of what was prohibited or that [he was] the victim of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” A defendant need only prove one or the other, not both.

The Appellate Court disagreed with this challenge, stating that the statutory definition “by its plain terms, afforded the defendant notice that the statute applied to public housing projects where elderly or disabled people reside.” Particularly telling, it pointed out that the statute doesn’t require the prosecution to show that the defendant knew he was within fifteen-hundred feet at the time of the narcotics transaction. Therefore, the defendant failed to prove that a constitutional violation had taken place.

When faced with a charge for possession or distribution of controlled substances, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-211-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.