The Legal Consequences of Addiction
Posted by Scott Gorman - August 3, 2018

Judges in New Jersey are routinely faced with the challenge of fashioning appropriate sentences for individuals who have been convicted of drug crimes as a result their struggles with drug addiction. Substance use disorder (SUD) is a recognized psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM-5, with criteria for diagnosis that include:

  • Difficulty curbing the use of a substance;
  • A strong urge to use the substance;
  • Using the substance despite an understanding of the problems that this use is causing; and,
  • Use that prevents the person from performing certain obligations at home or at work.

People who are diagnosed with SUD have trouble exercising the necessary self-control to resist falling into relapse. Yet, when those who are addicted to drugs are sentenced to terms of probation for committing drug crimes, it is not uncommon for judges to include remaining drug-free as a condition of probation. So, with the medical nature of SUD, what is an appropriate course of action if a defendant relapses while on probation?

Are Probation Violations Resulting from Drug Dependence “Willful”?

In one recent Massachusetts case, the defendant, Julie Eldred, argued that she was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment when she was ordered to be held in custody until she could be placed in an inpatient treatment facility after she tested positive for fentanyl while on probation. Ms. Eldred contended that, as someone who suffers from SUD, her probation violation was not “willful,” as is required for criminal culpability.

Unfortunately for Ms. Eldred, the state supreme court presiding over Ms. Eldred’s case unanimously ruled that the decision to temporarily imprison her did not violate her constitutional rights. In doing so, the court stressed that when a person who is on probation is imprisoned following a probation violation, the punishment is for the underlying crime, not the probation violation. In other words, proof that Ms. Eldred acted willfully was not necessary to send her back to jail. Simply testing positive was enough to violate of the terms of her probation, regardless of the fact that she suffered from SUD.

Is Jail Ever Appropriate as a Consequence for a Positive Drug Test?

While relapse is frustrating for probation officers and judges, it is obviously much more for an individual who suffers from SUD. Although the court in Ms. Eldred’s case acknowledged that relapse is a part of recovery, it did not conclude that the medical nature of relapse was sufficient to protect a relapsing defendant from incarceration. Everyone seems to agree that relapse isn’t is a reason to give up on a substance abuser; yet, the justice system still allows for (and even requires) incarceration when treatment is what is really needed.

It is critical that we develop strategies to support those struggling with substance abuse so that they may get to the point that they are ready to accept treatment and participate in their own recovery. Putting addicts in jail is simply not the right approach.

Contact Essex County Criminal Defense Attorney Scott Gorman

Scott Gorman is a criminal defense attorney who is committed to fighting for individuals who are facing life-changing criminal penalties due to drug dependence. If you or a loved one needs legal representation in Essex County, please call 201-489-9199 or inquire online for a free consultation.

Published in Categories: Criminal Defense