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.
Eldred, through counsel, as well as several amici, has argued that addiction is a chronic disease that involves reward, motivation, memory and brain circuitry. An afflicted individual does not use drugs for pleasure, but to maintain what is normal for them, and to avoid withdrawal. The brain of such a person has become so compromised that relapse is to be expected during recovery, which is anything but a smooth and linear process. In this light, relapse does not indicate a willful violation of a court order, but is instead a symptom of the disease of having an active and continuing addiction. As such, allowing more time for treatment of the addiction makes more sense than simply jailing the defendant for what appears on the surface to be a garden variety probation violation. The Commonwealth, supported by its own experts, argued that changes to the brain resulting from drug use do not necessarily result in the inability to resist drugs, and that addicts can avoid relapsing by simply being exposed to appropriate rewards and punishments.
One concern raised in the case is the well known fact that addicts, like Eldred, frequently commit petty crimes to obtain money to buy drugs. From one perspective, we should not punish someone whose actions are motivated by a disease. At the same time, can such offenses be ignored because the person committing them is acting under the compulsion of an addiction?
The Court heard oral argument toward the end of last year. As of now, the case is under advisement and no decision has been rendered. Because of the issues raised in the case, however, any decision in this case is will be important for any criminal attorney who represents addicts, regardless of the location of their practice.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal attorney centrally located in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents individuals charged with offenses in the Superior Court of New Jersey, all New Jersey municipal courts, and the United States District Courts located in New Jersey and New York City.