What is drug addiction? How is it to be defined? Is it some sort of disease, or just another form of illegal conduct? Commonwealth v. Eldred, a case now before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, may soon provide guidance on these issues. This case is important for any criminal attorney who represents addicts, particularly those who are placed on probation and then violate the terms and conditions of their supervision with, as frequently happens, a positive urine screen. It is therefore worth a comment, even though it is from another jurisdiction.
We have all been down this road many times. A client has a relatively low-level drug charge, which is typically the latest in a series of minor drug offenses or other petty offenses geared toward obtaining money to buy drugs. The client’s criminal history and behavior are consistent with addiction. They plead guilty and are placed on probation (or, in New Jersey, accepted into drug court, which is a form of probation). One of the terms or conditions of their probation is that they remain drug-free. In fact, this is always a standard term of probation in these cases. The client subsequently reports to their probation officer and are asked to, among other things, provide a urine sample. The sample tests positive and a violation is filed, with the result that the client is now facing the possibility of prison time.
Julie Eldred, a defendant with a relatively long drug history, was sentenced to probation for stealing jewelry to obtain money to purchase narcotics. Her first urine test – taken only days after her probationary term began – was positive, and she was briefly jailed as a penalty. In Ms. Eldred’s case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will determine whether Ms. Eldred’s relapse warranted the imposition of a criminal sanction. In doing do, the Court will opine on whether addiction is a mental disease that inhibits the addict’s ability to avoid using illegal substances, or some other kind of condition that will respond simply and directly to rewards and punishments. Continue reading