Judges can make drug tests a condition of probation in drug-related cases, court rules

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today there was nothing unconstitutional about a judge ordering a woman charged with stealing from a dog-walking client to pay for her heroin addiction to undergo drug tests as a condition of letting her go without any jail time - and then ordering her into in-patient treatment when she tested positive.

After she addmited to sufficient facts to warrant a guilty finding, a judge in Concord District Court continued her case without a finding for a year - which meant it would eventually be sealed - on condition she enter an outpatient treatment program and that she remain "drug free" during that year. But just 11 days later, she tested positive for fentanyl at a probation meeting. The judge then ordered her committed to an in-patient treatment program for violating the "drug free" condition of her probation. A second judge upheld that.

The woman appealed, arguing she had "substance use disorder," which made it impossible for her to remain drug free and which meant she had not committed "a wilful violation" of her probation and that forcing her into a confined program is cruel and unusual punishment.

Nope, the state's highest court ruled today.

For starters, the woman never brought up her "substance use disorder" until a hearing before the second judge, the court said. And while she submitted several affidavits from experts in support of her claim, none appeared at the hearing to testify on the condition or its effect on her brain.

More important, the court continued, the very nature of the woman's case shows exactly why judges can issue such rulings: It is the hallmark of a flexible system in which a judge can try to help an addicted defendant rather than simply throwing her in prison.

And revoking her probation and ordering her into treatment is not punishment for her drug use, but for her underlying crime of stealing from her client, the court said.

From crafting special conditions of probation to determining the appropriate disposition for a defendant who has violated one of those conditions, judges should act with flexibility, sensitivity, and compassion when dealing with people who suffer from drug addiction. The rehabilitative goals of probation, coupled with the judge's dispositional flexibility at each stage of the process, enable and require judges to consider the unique circumstances facing each person they encounter -- including whether that person suffers from drug addiction. This individualized approach to probation fosters an environment that enables and encourages recovery, while recognizing that relapse is part of recovery.

The court continued:

Even where a condition of probation affects a constitutional right, it is valid if it is "reasonably related" to the goals of sentencing and probation, in light of the defendant's underlying crime and her particular circumstances. ... Although random drug and alcohol testing constitutes a search and seizure for constitutional purposes under art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, such testing is nonetheless a permissible condition of probation so long as it is reasonably related to legitimate probationary goals.

The court then summed up her case:

Here, the defendant pleaded guilty to larceny and admitted that her drug use motivated her to commit the crime. The sentencing judge imposed the special conditions that the defendant remain drug free, continue outpatient drug treatment, and submit to random drug screens. The conditions directly addressed the defendant's personal circumstances and, significantly, her stated motivation for committing the crime -- purchasing illegal drugs. See Goodwin, 458 Mass. at 16. Not only were these conditions tailored to the characteristics of the defendant and the underlying crime, they furthered the rehabilitative goal of probation by facilitating treatment for the defendant's drug addiction. These conditions also furthered the goal of protecting the public, because each condition addressed the fact that the defendant's drug use motivated her to commit the crime. We note that the defendant does not claim or point to anything in the record that shows that, before agreeing to her probationary conditions, she objected, informed the judge that she had been diagnosed with SUD, or otherwise notified the judge that she would be unable to abide by the drug free condition of probation.

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Once upon a time

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Once upon a time when the addicts were black, the only remedy the system had to help was lock them up and throw away the key. Now that the demographic's have changed they get help and get out of jail free cards, programs every thing except a free dinner at Legal Seafood.

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