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SJC Affirms Court’s Ability to Order Defendant to Remain Drug Free Despite Diagnosed Substance Use Disorder

various-abusive-drugs-1194951-300x225In Commonwealth v. Eldred, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the revocation of the defendant’s probation and concluded (1) that “a judge may order a defendant who is addicted to drugs to remain drug free as a condition of probation”; and (2) that where a defendant has violated that condition, the judge has the authority, pending the final probation violation hearing, to detain the defendant while she awaits admission into inpatient treatment “for the safety of the defendant and the community.”

The background was as follows. Charged with the theft of jewelry, “[t]he defendant admitted to the police that she had stolen the jewelry and had sold it to obtain money to support her heroin addiction.” Subsequently, she admitted to sufficient facts to warrant a finding of guilt. The District Court judge “continued the defendant’s case without a finding, and imposed a one-year term of probation with special conditions related to her substance abuse that included requiring her to remain drug free, submit to random drug screens, and attend outpatient substance abuse treatment three times each week.” “[O]nly eleven days after … the probation had been imposed, the defendant tested positive for fentanyl, following a random drug test administered by her probation officer…. The … officer then filed a ‘Notice of Probation Detention Hearing’ with the District Court,” seeking to hold the defendant in custody pending a probation revocation hearing to determine whether her probation should be revoked.

At “the detention hearing, the judge … determined that there was probable cause to believe the defendant had violated the ‘drug free’ condition of her probation by using fentanyl. Because defense counsel was not able to secure a placement for the defendant at an inpatient treatment facility [that day], the judge ordered that the defendant be held in custody until a placement became available. The defendant was released into an inpatient treatment facility after ten days in custody.” Two months later, “a different District Court judge presided over the defendant’s probation violation hearing. Despite conceding that she had used fentanyl, the defendant contested that she had violated the terms of her probation.” She contended that because “she had been diagnosed with SUD [substance use disorder, i.e., addiction],” she was “incapable of remaining drug free,” such that “her use of drugs could not constitute a wilful violation of her probationary condition to remain drug free…. The judge determined that the defendant had violated the drug free condition of her probation by testing positive for fentanyl. The defendant filed a motion to vacate the condition of probation requiring her to stay drug free, arguing that the condition violated various State and Federal constitutional rights. That motion was denied. The judge then modified the conditions of the defendant’s probation by adding the condition that she continue inpatient treatment.” The defendant appealed.

In its decision, the SJC opined that “[t]he judge … did not abuse her discretion by imposing the special condition of probation requiring the defendant to remain drug free.” Such a condition, stated the Court, was consistent with the Standards on Substance Abuse set forth by the Court’s standing committee on that subject. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument “that because she suffers from SUD,” the requirement that she remain drug free criminalized her addiction and “set[] her up for unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment when the inevitable relapse occur[red].” In the Court’s view, the defendant was “not being punished for violating the probationary condition” that she remain drug free, but rather for the underlying offense which resulted in her original admission to sufficient facts. The Court opined, moreover, that “[t]he judge did not abuse her discretion in detaining the defendant pending [the] probation violation hearing.” “The judge was faced with either releasing the defendant and risking that she would suffer an overdose and die, or holding her in custody until a placement at an inpatient treatment facility became available.”

Although the Court’s decision in this case was extremely disappointing, it is important to note that the decision left the door open for a similar challenge where a defendant establishes a more thorough record of his or her Substance Use Disorder.  If you or a loved one is in a similar position to the defendant in this case, it is extremely important that you have an experienced attorney who is up to date on the law and willing to try and mount a successful challenge to the court’s authority to set conditions of release or probation relating to a defendant’s Substance Use Disorder, and revoke his or her release based on a violation of such conditions.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is such an attorney – he is eager to take on this new and developing area of law.  Call him for a free consultation today.