SALEM — A Peabody man found with more than half an ounce of heroin hidden in a secret compartment of his Volvo three years ago won't have to serve time in prison after pleading guilty to charges of drug possession with intent to distribute.
That's because, a Salem Superior Court judge reasoned on Tuesday, Manuel Soto-Vittini was just trying to support his family, and was not an addict himself.
"This was basically a money crime," Judge Timothy Feeley concluded, rejecting a prosecutor's request for one to three years in state prison.
Instead, Feeley imposed two years of probation on Soto-Vittini, 32, whose address was listed in court papers as 50 Warren St., Peabody.
"This was not a drug addict who was dealing to fund his own addiction," Feeley said, "but rather, a person who made some terrible judgments and decisions, but made them for what he thought was in the best interest of his family."
He said he considered that a mitigating factor.
Feeley also said he was taking into account the possible immigration consequences Soto-Vittini faces as a result of the conviction — an issue his attorney, Eduardo Masferrer, had raised in a sentencing memorandum filed before Tuesday's hearing.
Prosecutor Kristen Buxton argued the sentence takes into account none of the factors judges typically consider in sentencing.
"Now the court exercises its discretion to help him avoid deportation," said Buxton, who also told the judge she "could not disagree more" with the judge's rationale.
"This was not a one-time incident," said Buxton, noting police reports that suggested Soto-Vittini was making near-daily drug deals. "It's clear ... he was in the ongoing business of dealing heroin," the prosecutor said.
Soto-Vittini was arrested by Salem police in June 2015 after detectives received information about suspected drug dealing taking place in the area of Aborn and Bow streets, two side streets off Boston Street.
On June 11, detectives were conducting surveillance in the area when they saw Soto-Vittini's black Volvo pull up alongside a Honda sedan. As Detective Eric Connolly approached, the Volvo began backing up.
Soto-Vittini was ordered to stop at gunpoint. He and the driver of the Honda were both arrested. The woman allegedly had been making daily purchases of heroin from Soto-Vittini, which she would then bring back to an apartment house in Beverly and share with others living there, according to a police report.
After getting a search warrant, Salem police found two hidden compartments in the Volvo, one in the center console and the other behind the climate control panel. The compartments contained more than 40 small bags of heroin. Police also found two small bags of cocaine.
The amount of heroin initially reported was more than one ounce. As a result, a district court judge set bail at $100,000.
That amount was later reduced to $35,000 by a superior court judge, and it was posted 10 days after Soto-Vittini's arrest. It was later further reduced.
Prosecutors did agree to reduce the original heroin trafficking charge, which carried a minimum mandatory 3 1/2 years in prison, to possession of heroin with intent to distribute. Soto-Vittini also faced possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
Masferrer asked the judge to go even further and accept a plea to distribution of an unspecified Class A and Class B controlled substance.
The judge granted the request.
Masferrer suggested to the judge that Soto-Vittini, who is originally from the Dominican Republic but who had legal permanent resident status, is still in jeopardy of deportation, something he argued would be "catastrophic."
He included letters from Soto-Vittini's longtime girlfriend, with whom he has two children, and his mother. And he argued that his client had no significant record.
Masferrer also contended that had the case been heard in district court, Soto-Vittini would not have received jail time — a suggestion Buxton quickly corrected, saying she has spoken to several district court prosecutors who say that's not true.
Soto-Vittini's brother, Michael Soto-Vittini, of Salem, was sentenced in an unrelated case to serve 18 months of a 2 1/2 year jail term by a Gloucester District Court judge following his own arrest on heroin distribution charges in that city back in July, 2015.