Wednesday, March 4, 2009
The web page of the Ohio Supreme Court reports:
The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that, to convict a licensed health professional of trafficking in drugs under R.C. 2925.03(A), the state bears the burden of showing that a statutory exception for licensed health professionals does not apply by proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant violated statutes or regulations that define the standard of care for dispensing controlled substances.
The Court’s 7-0 decision, authored by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, affirmed a ruling of the 2nd District Court of Appeals.
In 2004, Dr. William Nucklos of Springfield was charged with 10 felony counts of drug trafficking under R.C. 2925.03 for allegedly prescribing a prescription pain-killer drug to patients in an illegal manner. As a defense against those charges, Nucklos cited an exception in the drug-trafficking statute, R.C. 2925.03(B)(1), which provides that the criminal offense of trafficking in drugs “does not apply” to a licensed health professional who dispenses controlled substances as long as that person’s actions fall within the minimum standard of care set forth in specified sections of state law.
During Nucklos’ trial, the judge instructed jurors that they should consider the licensed health professional exception to the drug trafficking statute as an “affirmative defense,” i.e., that in order to find Nucklos not guilty based on that exception, they must find that Nucklos proved by a preponderance of the evidence that he acted within the minimum standards required by law. Nucklos was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to a total of 20 years in prison.
Nucklos appealed his convictions. Among other claims, he argued that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that he bore the burden of proving that his actions were lawful. The 2nd District Court of Appeals reversed Nucklos’ convictions and remanded the case for a new trial, holding that the licensed health professional exception set forth in R.C. 2925.03(B)(1) does not establish an affirmative defense that a defendant must prove, but rather establishes an additional element that the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt when it pursues drug trafficking charges against a health professional.
The state sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 2nd District’s ruling.
Writing for the Court in today’s decision, Justice Stratton noted that under R.C. 2901.05(D) an “affirmative defense” applies where a defendant’s actions would normally constitute commission of a criminal offense, but the applicable statute provides “an excuse or justification peculiarly within the knowledge of the accused” that, if proved by the defendant, exempts him from criminal liability.
“Had the General Assembly intended R.C. 2925.03(B)(1) to be an affirmative defense as defined in R.C. 2901.05(D)(1), it could have stated that a licensed health professional who complies with applicable regulations is excused from criminal liability for trafficking in drugs, or is justified in distributing a controlled substances. However, it did not use either of these terms,” wrote Justice Stratton. “Instead, R.C. 2925.03(B)(1) states that the offense of trafficking in drugs ‘does not apply’ to licensed health professionals who comply with applicable statutes or regulations.”
“Physicians legally and legitimately prescribe drugs to treat their patients on a daily basis. To accept the state’s argument that R.C. 2925.03(B)(1) is an affirmative defense would place an unreasonable burden upon all doctors who prescribe drugs to prove compliance with statutes or regulations to avoid criminal liability for merely practicing medicine. We do not believe that the General Assembly intended to criminalize legitimate medical treatment. Rather, we believe that the General Assembly consciously avoided such an absurd result by stating that trafficking in drugs ‘does not apply’ to licensed health professionals who comply with applicable statutory or regulatory requirements.... Accordingly, we hold that proving a health professional’s compliance with statutes or regulations does not fall within the definition of an affirmative defense in R.C. 2901.05(D)(2) because it is not an excuse or justification, and proof of compliance is not peculiarly within the knowledge of the accused.”
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1970 holding in In re Winship, Justice Stratton concluded: “The state cannot convict a licensed health professional of trafficking in drugs under R.C. 2925.03(A) unless the licensed health professional has failed to comply with applicable statutory or regulatory requirements. R.C. 2925.03(B)(1). Proving noncompliance is therefore necessary to prove the offense of drug trafficking when a licensed health professional is charged. ... Accordingly, we hold that a licensed health professional’s failure to comply with statutory or regulatory requirements is an element of the offense of drug trafficking that the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The court's decision is linked here. (Mike Frisch)