Eldred case before the Massachusetts SJC raises the issue of whether addiction is a medical condition that precludes a court from ordering drug free to an addicted person as a probationary condition

The Massachusetts SJC will soon release a decision that could have a major impact on how addiction and drug offenses are treated in Court.  The case of Commonwealth v. Julie Eldred involves a very common situation that occurs in the district courts.  The defendant agreed to a plea on the charge of Larceny over $ 250.00; as part of that plea, the defendant was to remain drug free with random screens.  The defendant received a CWOF or continuance without a finding which is technically not a criminal conviction in Massachusetts.

The defendant tested positive for fentanyl; the judge in the Concord District Court detained the defendant until she could find a bed in an in-patient treatment, pending a final violation hearing.  At the final violation hearing, the defense filed a motion to change the condition of probation to remove drug free, arguing the the defendant because of her addiction could not comply with that condition.  The district court judge reported the question to the appeals courts, and the SJC accepted the case for direct appellate review.

The defense argued that the court cannot impose conditions designed for someone to fail.  This reasoning is derived from the case of Commonwealth v. Henry, 475 Mass. 117 (2016) where the SJC held that the court must address someone’s ability to pay before ordering restitution as a condition of probation.  

The defense cited other opinions for the court showing that an ability to comply with the condition is required before establishing a violation.  The defendant referenced Commonwealth v. Gomes, 407 Mass. 206 (1990) which held that a homeless person cannot be violated on his probation for failing to comply with electronic monitoring.  

When a defendant is on probation, a violation of probation subjects the individual to have their probation revoked and they can be sentenced to up to the maximum sentence for the crime.  

The defense argued that imprisonment for someone in treatment who relapses wrongfully punishes someone for an action they have no control over.  The defense present a discussion of the science of addiction, showing that the disorder impairs the circuits of the brain so that the defendant does not have complete control over the decision making process.  The defense argued that recent science changes how we understand addiction

The defense argued that it is a medical problem addiction and not a moral problem such that coercive punishments are not effective to prevent drug addiction.  While redacted from the brief, it appears that the defendant had specific medical issues that made compliance with he drug free condition difficult.  

The defense referenced studies showing that the brain of someone with a substance abuse disorder has sustained chronic damage to the circuits that govern decisions. Relapse is expected because the circuits of the brain have been damaged. This case presents a difficult case for the court because it appeared that the defendant did not have the power to overcome her addiction.  

What should the SJC do to balance need for treatment and punish offenders that willful misuse drugs?  

The Court should find that if someone is engaged in treatment and has shown a persistent attempt to overcome addiction, prior to imprisonment for violating a drug free condition the Court must conduct a hearing to determine if the violation could have been prevented or controlled by the defendant.  I would expect the court to decide the case in favor of the defendant based on the unique circumstances of this case.  A decision for the defendant may be misinterpreted allowing defendant to avoid a condition of being drug free, but I think the court will impose additional procedures for someone showing persistent effort to overcome that addiction and has a relapse, versus a probationer that fails to comply.  

To see the filing in the Eldred case you can find them on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court website.

To listen to the oral arguments in the SJC you may find that on the Suffolk University Law School Website.  

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