PHMP versus RAMP: A Big Difference

I write blogs about Pennsylvania professional licensing legal developments.  I am also licensed to practice law in New Jersey. I routinely counsel Pennsylvania professionals concerned about their NJ licenses.  There is a huge difference between Pennsylvania’s PHMP and New Jersey’s RAMP (“Recovery and Monitoring Program “).  RAMP was established in 2003 as an Alternative to Discipline program, managed by the Institute for Nursing for the New Jersey Board of Nursing. http://njsna.org/ramp/

Pennsylvania medical professionals who live in New Jersey or Pennsylvania residents also licensed in NJ, but only use their PA  licenses, are exposed to RAMP.  (Obviously also are NJ licensees working in NJ.)  Any Pennsylvania medical professional, who is also licensed in NJ – who receives Pennsylvania PHMP letter – must consider how RAMP will respond if Pennsylvania restricts their professional license.  Any Pennsylvania disciplinary action based upon an alleged impairment of alcohol and drugs will come to NJ’s RAMP attention. Also, NJ licensees must carefully respond to RAMP communications.

A recent NJ appellate case reveals just how different RAMP is from Pennsylvania’s PHMP.  On November 16, 2017 a New Jersey appellate court decided In The Matter of the license of Kevin Rafferty, RN.  He was a certified registered nurse anesthetist and an Advanced Practice Nurse.  Mr. McCafferty‘s licensing problems began in 2013 when three co-workers smelled alcohol on his breath during work.  They levied anonymous complaints to the Nursing Board, which contacted RAMP. This was the only evidence against him.

RAMP contacted  Rafferty via letter, setting forth the allegations that he may have problems related to mental health and or substance-abuse that could affect his ability to practice his profession.  RAMP offered him a private letter agreement and enrollment for a minimum of 90 days.  During this time RAMP requires random observed drug tests, monthly self evaluation reports, and regular attendance in peer support meetings.  Post-enrollment, RAMP then requires an initial intake evaluation.  In my experience this evaluation typically  finds the professional needs to be in RAMP for 12 months.  The 90-day initial RAMP invite is a fraud!

It is this context (which the McCaffrey case reveals)  that RAMP’s enrollment process is distinctly different from Pennsylvania’s PHMP.  RAMP’s initial letter of invite is not really an offer, but an order to each licensee.  PHMP’s initial “Letter of Concern” is a non-mandatory offer for help and does not constitute a demand to enroll.

RAMP’s initial 90-day evaluation period is not based upon a medical expert assessment or determination the licensee suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction that renders them an impaired professional. That assessment comes only after RAMP enrollment and signing of the RAMP 90-day contract.  The licensee is then stuck.

The RAMP evaluation takes place after enrollment, when the agreement sign requires compliance with the terms and condition of the program.  Licensee thinking they are just going to get the 90 days meet the expert, who determines more time in RAMP is required. Now they are stuck and can’t break the agreement.

PHMP’s letter of concern offers an assessment and voluntary disclosure to determine in an impairment exists.   PHMP requires either a finding of an impairment or a voluntary admission of such before enrollment in the program.  Pennsylvania Voluntary Recovery Program (“VRP”) questionnaire includes a provision that the licensee admit to suffering from an impairment.  This is the voluntary admission part of the VRP contract.  I counsel against signing this agreement.  NEVER ADMIT you are an impaired professional.Wait for the Board to file a formal petition to Compel and Mental and Physical Evaluation.  (See my other blogs.)

McCaffrey did not respond the the initial 90 day RAMP letter.  He was determined to be “non-compliant“ with RAMP.  RAMP notified the Nursing Board that “it could not insure the board or the public that McCaffrey was safe to practice.”  The Board subpoenaed McCaffrey to appear before a committee of the Board to answer questions about  appearing at work smelling of alcohol.  McCaffrey appeared, denied the allegations, and brought numerous letters of reference.  The Board still concluded he should enroll in RAMP and proposed a 2nd private letter agreement requiring McCaffery participate.  He refused.

The Board issued a provisional order of discipline compelling McCaffrey to submit to an evaluation and monitoring to determine whether his continued practice may jeopardize the safety and welfare of the public.  This is a distinct different legal standard and burden of proof compared to Pennsylvania’s impairment burden of proof.

NJ’s licensing boards and Courts have long recognized a “community care-taking responsibility” as legal justification that allows government license restriction.  The NJ Nursing Board thereafter issued a final order compelling McCaffrey to enroll in RAMP. The Board determined such was required to satisfy its “mandate to protect the public.” McCaffrey‘s failure to comply with this final order was reported to the national practitioner data Bank. Still no medical determination of any impairment!

McCaffery appealed claiming there was no medical or legal basis to compel RAMP and that absent such, a general order requiring such denied him due process of law.   The appellate court reviewed McCaffrey’s objections to the Board’s order. The appellate court determined the Board maintains oversight over professional licensing for nurses pursuant to the Nursing Law.  Because the New Jersey professional nursing law requires an applicant not be a “habitual user of drugs and alcohol”, McCaffrey‘s potential for alcohol and drug abuse rendered him suspect of meeting the legal requirements of both the Nursing Licensing and Nurse Anesthetist laws.  The court found the Board had the authority even absent a medical conclusion of any impairment.

McCaffrey complained that absent an expert determination that he was impaired or suffered from a chemical dependency, he met the requirements for licensure.  The Board rejected this argument. The court determined the Nursing Board was within its statutory authority based upon the factual allegations, even without even an expert evaluation, that the Board was within its authority to compel McCaffrey to participate in the 90 day private letter RAMP program.  The decision was handed down in 2017.  McCaffrey’s work place situation occurred in 2013.

For the many licenses that practice in Pennsylvania, these procedural differences between the PHMP and RAMP are significant and should be respected. Pennsylvania’s regulatory and statutory framework allow for licensee participation in and evaluation by a board chosen medical expert before mandatory enrollment in the PHMP.  NJ does not allow for this pre-enrollment evaluation, compels participation, and then subjects the licensee to a bait and switch disciplinary monitoring program.

Please call me to discuss either of these programs and any letters you receive from your licensing board.

 

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Medical Marijuana and the Pitfalls for the Professional

The pitfalls of medical marijuana for the professional are more evident every day. Several weeks ago I wrote a blog on the challenges facing licensees who seek a medical marijuana card due to a medical condition. Prescription Drug History   In another blog I wrote about the complexities facing medical professionals who seek to become medical marijuana authorized prescribers.

 

In Pot Doc Article the Philadelphia Inquirer reveals Pennsylvania’s Medical Board, Health Department, FBI, and DEA investigatory practices in this field.  If you are a medical professional, please read this article.  I represented a peripheral, part time doctor moon lighting for Dr. Nikparavarfard.

Doctors working in a medical practice that includes a “Pot Doc“ – doctors that are authorized to write prescriptions for medical marijuana – are subjecting themselves to unnecessary oversight and inquiry.  When a  “Pot Doc” exposes himself to both criminal and licensing  investigations, they expose all nurses or doctors employed by that practice.  Drug Act violations are routinely found and criminal charges filed!.

The FBI and DEA’s investigation of Dr. Nikparvarfard’s Scranton office – the Pot Doc – necessarily also included  my client’s prescribing patterns.  An invasive, long running investigation turned to her simply because the police were investigating that practice and needed leverage against Dr. Nikparvarfard.  Experienced and accomplished undercover FBI, DEA, Health Department agents then ensnared my client.  Again, only because they were looking at Dr. Nik’s practice.

My client was not the prescribing “Pot Doc.”  However, the overarching Pot Doc investigation expanded to any potential criminal activity discovered within the medical practice.  But for my client working for the Pot doc and his medical practice, my client would not have been under surveillance. Unfortunately she was.

Once my client became known to FBI, her prescription and Medicaid/Medicare billing patterns were easily examined, patients contacted, and medical procedures evaluated.  Undercover patients were sent to the practice.  All because of the attention brought on the practice by Pot Doc Nikparvarfard.

One bad apple spoils the pie; two or three bad apples subject professionals to jail.  These types of investigations render medical professionals (nurses and doctors) unemployed and potentially unemployable.  Thereafter, professionals are the target of multiple investigations by medical boards, DEA,  Health Departments, and potentially the U.S. Department of justice.  But for my client’s employment with a Pot Doc, she would not have come under any surveillance.

This case is but one example of many to come.  Overarching public safety concerns, opiates in the news, and an aggressive enforcement environment of a new regulatory scheme create huge risks for both Pot Docs and those doctors and nurses who work with them.

Please call me to discuss

What is a “Conviction” – How Important is Drug Court to the Licensed Professional?

In 1999 Tim Kearney was issued his Pennsylvania physician assistant (“PA”) license. In March 2010 he admitted himself into a treatment facility for drug addiction issues.  On August 16, 2011 he plead guilty to the felony Drug Act violation –  securing a prescription by fraud.  At the time of his guilty plea, Kearney acknowledges he understood that by pleading guilty he was  “admitting to committing the criminal charge” as alleged under the Pennsylvania Drug Act.

In December 2011 the Pennsylvania Medical Board automatically suspended Mr. Kearney’s PA license for no less than 10 years pursuant to section 40(B) of the Medical Practices Act of 1985.  This provision requires the Board to suspend any licensee who suffers a felony conviction for violating any provision of Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (CSA). 35 P.S. § 780–113(a)(12).

In December, 2011, Kearney filed in criminal court a petition to vacate his guilty plea and enroll in the county adult drug court program.  In June 2014, after 2 1/2 years in drug court, Kearney petitioned to vacate his guilty plea and dismiss the criminal case.   His request was based upon compliance with all terms and conditions of the program. On June 20, 2014 the county trial court dismissed all of Kearney’s criminal drug charges.  They were subsequently expunged. (This is really important.)

Six months later, in December, 2014, Kearney filed a Petition to Reinstate his PA license based upon the lack of criminal conviction, the expungement, and his extensive drug and alcohol treatment.  This blog discusses the Commonwealth Court opinion approving his petition and reversing the Medical Board’s refusal to reinstate Kearney’s PA license.  The case is found at Kearney v. Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, — A.3d —- (2017).

The Pennsylvania administrative law hearing examiner denied Kearney’s Petition to Reinstate his PA license. The hearing examiner concluded Kearney’s admission of guilt in the guilty plea colloquy and statement before the presiding judge when the charges were dismissed constitute either a conviction or an admission of guilt pursuant to the Medical Practices Act.  The hearing officer determined Kearney satisfied his burden of proof that he was able to resume his PA practice with reasonable skill and safety to patients, subject to monitoring by the physicians health program.

The Medical Board agreed with the hearing examiner that Mr. Kearney’s PA license remained indefinitely suspended as a result of a “conviction” as defined by the Medical Practices Act.  It did not reach the PHP and monitoring aspect of the decision because it determined Kearney’s license was still suspended.

Kearney appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which reversed. The sole issue on appeal was whether Kearney’s original guilty plea (vacated and now expunged) constituted a conviction and his statements on the record constitute “admissions of guilt“ in accordance with section 40B of the Medical Practices Act.

Commonwealth Court reviewed the Medical Practice Act.  “The Act provides, in pertinent part, that “[a] license or certificate issued under this act shall automatically be suspended upon … conviction of a felony under the act … known as [t]he [CSA] ….” 63 P.S. § 422.40(b). Section 40(b) of the Act clarifies that “[a]s used in this section, the term ‘conviction’ shall include a judgment, an admission of guilt or a plea of nolo contendere.Id.; see also section 2 of the Act, 63 P.S. § 422.2 (defining “conviction” as “[a] judgment of guilt, an admission of guilt or a plea of nolo contendere.

  • Section 43 of the Act further states that “[a]ny person whose license, certificate or registration has been suspended or revoked because of a felony conviction under the [CSA] … may apply for reinstatement after a period of at least ten years has elapsed from the date of conviction.” 63 P.S. § 43.

While the Act provides for automatic suspension of a license for a felony “conviction” under the CSA, the Act incorporates the CSA by express reference. By all reasonable means, this compelled the Court to unify two or more statutes in a cohesive and consistent fashion and avoid interpreting one statute in a manner that repeals or is otherwise incongruous with another statute.

Under section 17 of the CSA, a trial court “may place a person on probation without verdict if the person pleads nolo contendere or guilty to any nonviolent offense under [the CSA] and the person proves he is drug dependent.” 35 P.S. 780–117. (This is a Section 17 plea.)

Importantly, that section also states that “[u]pon fulfillment of the terms and conditions of probation, the court shall discharge such person and dismiss the proceedings against him,” adding that the “dismissal shall be without adjudication of guilt and shall not constitute a conviction for any purpose whatever ….” 35 P.S. § 780–117(3) (emphasis added). Section 19 of the CSA further declares that records of arrest or prosecution under the Act will be expunged. When a court orders expungement, the records “shall not … be regarded as an arrest or prosecution for the purpose of any statute or regulation or license or questionnaire or any civil or criminal proceeding or any other public or private purpose.” 35 P.S. § 780–119(b).

As a surface matter, Commonwealth court observes that a plain reading of the statutes indicates that, while the Act includes an “admission of guilt” as a subpart of the definition of a “conviction,” the CSA commands that a final disposition of “probation without verdict” does not constitute a “conviction.” Under the procedure in section 17 of the CSA for a “probation without verdict,” an individual’s “plea” is, in essence, held in abeyance, or not accepted, until there is a final determination by the court as to whether the individual has satisfactorily completed the terms and conditions of probation; if the individual does so, the trial court dismisses the charges and there is no verdict or finding of guilt in the matter.

Consequently, in order to afford the phrase “for any purpose whatever” in section 17 of the CSA its full linguistic effect, the Court reasonably interpreted it to mean that the oral and written statements made to a trial court in connection with a “probation without verdict” cannot be a considered a “conviction” for purposes of section 40(b) of the Act. To be sure, this construction is the only way in which the term “conviction” in the Act can be harmonized with the same term in the CSA.

Indeed, following dismissal of the underlying charges, the criminal record is expunged pursuant to section 19 of the CSA, and the criminal record cannot be used at all in an administrative licensing matter – not even as proof that the individual  was arrested or prosecuted.  In some statutes, our General Assembly, without using the word “conviction,” has expressly included the phrase “probation without verdict” to describe the basis upon which a licensing board can refuse, suspend, or revoke a professional license.

However, the General Assembly did not insert this or similar language in the Act. Nor did   the General Assembly inject “probation without verdict” alongside “admission of guilt” in the Act’s definition of a “conviction.” Inferentially, the divergence in word usage among the CSA, the Act, and other similar statutes is indicative of the General Assembly’s desire to conceptually separate an “admission of guilt” from a “probation without verdict,” suggesting to courts that the two should not be perceived or linked as being one and the same.

On the whole, Commonwealth Court precedent has clearly concluded as much.   For example, in Carlson, a teacher entered a plea of nolo contendere to charges that he possessed drugs in violation of the CSA, a plea that has “the same legal effect as a plea of guilty in the criminal proceedings in which it is entered.” 418 A.2d at 813. The criminal case proceeded under the provisions of section 17 of the CSA, and the teacher eventually had his criminal record expunged. Although this Court was convinced that the school district properly dismissed the teacher for immorality pursuant to sections 1122 and 1129 of the Public School Code, Act of March 10, 1949, P.L. 30, as amended 24 P.S. §§ 11–1122 and 11–1129, we pointed to the special nature and characteristics of the CSA and the probation without a verdict mechanism.

More specifically, the Court explained that when the charges are dismissed following compliance with probation, “no judgment is entered, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant is placed on probation, an act which normally constitutes a sentence, i.e. a judgment.” 418 A.2d at 813. On this basis, we determined that evidence of the teacher’s plea of nolo contendere was inadmissible, and further reasoned that, as a result of the expungement, there was “no criminal record” upon which the trier of fact could determine that the teacher engaged in conduct of a criminal nature. Id. Accordingly, this Court held that the teacher could not be discharged from his employment with the school district as a matter of law.

The crisp and clean understanding of this case is that in any Medical Board supervised license case, for which disciplinary action is based upon a conviction that has been opened and erased due to Drug Court compliance, there is no conviction.  There is no basis to deny reinstatement of a license.  Whether the PHP gets involved is a different question.  This case merely, but forcefully, allows for eligibility for reinstatement once Drug Court is served, complied with, and all charges are dismissed and expunged.

Call me to discuss your case.

 

Social Media — Facebook, Instagram and State Licensing Board Prosecutions

Social media and the advent of voluntary public display of everything is starting to affect Pennsylvania’s professional licensing board investigations.  For the last ten years I have consistently represented client’s under investigation for drug diversion and theft.  These cases typically stem from hospital and nursing home based investigations.  A new twist in the investigatory practices of these cases has emerged.
It is important to realize how state board investigators are now utilizing social media as an investigatory tool.  Voluntary picture posts on Facebook, Instagram, or other websites will are now used as the professional’s own statements. Facial recognition software identifies and attaches names to various people in most photographs.  Aspiring and licensed professionals should pause when choosing which if any photographs to post or in which they are included that others are posting. This should give you the professional great concern.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Attorney General, Bureau of Narcotics Investigations (BNI) and licensing board investigators have begun to search social media for names, addresses, the identity of complaining witnesses, and/or information to aide their criminal and licensing prosecutions.  Investigators are learning —  through a target’s own social media self-promotion — the target’s social activities, accomplices, associates, friends, and favorites hang outs.  Many witnesses that would otherwise never be found are located, interviewed, and intimidated.
As well, during a client’s recent Nursing Board Mental and Physical Evaluation, the western Pennsylvania based psychiatrist asked my nurse client of her social media participation. This psychiatrist revealed he had searched Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets in preparation for the psychiatric drug impairment evaluation. The doctor sought evidence to confirm and corroborate my client’s statements during her evaluation about her social activities and drinking tendencies. The psychiatrist sought photographic and statement evidence which could reveal my professional client’s evaluation statements may have been inconsistent with social media and/or statements is medical records to her doctors.

Credibility is the most important piece of evidence in an independent medical examination and at a licensing application or disciplinary hearing.  The witnesses I  present at a licensing hearing (live, via telephone, or in a letter) corroborate and strengthen my professional client’s reputation, character, and credibility.
Photographs of social celebration in the context of disciplinary hearings based upon accusations of drunk driving or drug and alcohol impairments constitute important cross-examination evidence.  When a professional voluntarily hands to a psychiatrists, criminal or licensing board investigators evidence against them (or life style pictures that may poorly depict that licensee) it makes my defense harder and the prosecutor or psychiatrists impairment investigation easier.  DO NOT DO THIS  TO YOURSELF.

Serious Medical Conditions according to Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Law and How They Relate to Medical Professionals

medical-marijuana-doctor-online

Pennsylvania began the legalization of medical marijuana with specific limitations on the medical conditions for which a practitioner can issue a prescription for medical marijuana (“MM”).   Act 16 of 2016, Section 403 (a) – Conditions for issuance – allows a physician to certify medical necessity only if all of the following requirements are met:

(1)  The practitioner has been approved by the department for inclusion in the registry and has a valid, unexpired, unrevoked, unsuspended Pennsylvania license to practice medicine at the time of the issuance of the certification.

(2)  The practitioner has determined that the patient has a serious medical condition and has included the condition in the patient’s health care record.

(3)  The patient is under the practitioner’s continuing care for the serious medical condition.

(4)  In the practitioner’s professional opinion and review of past treatments, the practitioner determines the patient is likely to receive therapeutic or palliative benefit from the use of medical marijuana.

The regulations define Serious medical condition as:

 (i) Cancer.
 (ii) Positive status for Human Immunodeficiency Virus or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
 (iii) Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
 (iv) Parkinson’s disease.
 (v) Multiple sclerosis.
 (vi) Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity.
 (vii) Epilepsy.
 (viii) Inflammatory bowel disease.
 (ix) Neuropathies.
 (x) Huntington’s disease.
 (xi) Crohn’s disease.
 (xii) Post-traumatic stress disorder.
 (xiii) Intractable seizures.
 (xiv) Glaucoma.
 (xv) Sickle cell anemia.
 (xvi) Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective.
 (xvii) Autism.

For the medical licensee seeking a medical marijuana card, the significance of these medical conditions cannot be understated.  A Pennsylvania medical licensee (nurse, doctor, dentist, and all others)  will have to suffer from a serious medical condition.  A referring medical marijuana practitioner  will have to certify the professional licensee’s serious medical condition necessitates marijuana for therapeutic or treatment reasons.  The practitioner will have to perform a completed and full assessment of the patient’s medical history and current medical condition, including an in-person consultation with the patient.  Reviewing the prescription drug monitoring history of that patient/licensee will also be necessary.

A MM practitioner will have to credibly determine that imminent disability is present, warranting therapeutic medical marijuana as all other drugs have or are failing.   Well, if the medical professional is disabled, they can not do their job.  If they are high on medical pot, the Boards think these licensees probably should not be permitted to practice their profession.

The burden of proof in disciplinary cases involving drugs or alcohol is whether the licensee suffers “from a drug or alcohol addiction or impairment or a medical condition that renders them incapable safely practicing.”  If a medical licensee’s MM practitioner suggests to the Department of Health the licensee is medically disabled to a degree that requires the therapeutic use of medical marijuana, a medical record has been generated stating the licensee is almost medical disability from practicing their profession. The medical impairment burden, it could be argued, has been met.

Conversely, if the medical licensee is prescribed medical marijuana (but not disabled), the use of medical grade marijuana renders the licensee under the influence of drugs or alcohol to such an extent that renders them in capable of safely practicing.  This logical reasoning jump  — using marijuana automatically renders one unsafe the practice — is found in other provisions of Pennsylvania law.  Those include the Drug act and Pennsylvania’s DUI statute.

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Pennsylvania’s DUI statute, 75 Pa. C.S.A. §3802(d) provides for legal intoxication if the mere presence of marijuana is in one’s bloodstream.  (Pennsylvania is not a drug recognition state where the prosecutor has to put into evidence testimony from a drug recognition expert, a “DRE”, that the level of marijuana in somebody’s blood renders them under the influence and incapable of safely driving.)  Pennsylvania is a per se violation state.  This means that the legislature has determined as a matter of policy, that any marijuana or other schedule II prescription medication in a person’s blood, renders that person automatically incapable of safely driving.

It is not a hard legal argument to suggest that if you can not safely drive because you are high on pot (any amount), the medical professional can not perform their medical  duties because they are high on pot.  Here is where the confidentiality provisions of the Act are important.   Section 301(A)(4) of the Act establishes an electronic database to include activities and information relating to medical marijuana organizations, certifications and identification cards issued, practitioner registration and electronic tracking of all medical marijuana as required under the Act.

Section 301(B)(a) allows for confidentiality of Patient information.–The department shall maintain a confidential list of patients and caregivers to whom it has issued identification cards. All information obtained by the department relating to patients, caregivers and other applicants shall be confidential and not subject to public disclosure, including disclosure under the act of February 14, 2008 (P.L.6, No.3), known as the Right-to-Know Law, including:

(1)  Individual identifying information about patients and caregivers.
(2)  Certifications issued by practitioners.
(3)  Information on identification cards.
(4)  Information provided by the Pennsylvania State Police under section 502(b).
(5)  Information relating to the patient’s serious medical condition.

My concern is that these provisions in conjunction with other Pennsylvania rules and regulations will be employed against the medical professional who seeks and secures a medical marijuana card.  Your doctor must provide this information to the Department of Health.  If pot is found in a medical licensee’s blood, getting the medical records from their doctor (who will be discovered through the data base) is very easy.  Or, the licensee will be compelled to identify and provide their MM practitioner and his records at a Board ordered evaluation.

My experience in Pennsylvania’s heightened enforcement environment strengthens my conviction on this point. Currently every single DUI, workplace positive drug test, or other minor legal infraction is generating Board ordered mental and physical evaluations. The Boards are getting ready for a waive of intoxicated professionals.  They are gravely concerned for the well being of the Commonwealth’s citizens.  The Boards figure, get any current licensee help, stripped of their license, or at least in the Board’s radar so that when that licensee starts legally or illegally getting high and they learn of it they will be ready.   Any issue that brings the medical professional – high on legal Pennsylvania medical pot – to their respective Board’s attention will become the subject of a targeted enforcement scheme to strip their license.

 

Call me to discuss your medical condition, medical needs, and how to proceed.

 

 

 

Pennsylvania’s DUI Statute and Warrantless Blood Draws On An Unconscious Person

Since Birchfield v. N. Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 2160, 2173, 2185, 195 L. Ed. 2d 560 (2016), the Pennsylvania Supreme court has swiftly moved to invigorate and buttress Pennsylvania civil liberties and motor vehicle drivers’ privacy rights.  On July 19, 2017, in Commonwealth v. Myers, 2017 Pa. LEXIS 1689, 2017 WL 3045867, the Court upheld lower court rulings granting suppression of blood evidence seized from a drunk, unconscious motorist.

The facts are simple. Myers was visibly drunk, operated the motor vehicle, was arrested by one police officer, and taken to the hospital for a blood draw. A second officer arrived at the hospital, did not observe Myers or ask his consent to take his blood before hospital staff administered medication rendering Myers unconscious.  Unable to respond to his commands, the 2nd police officer instructed the nurse to draw Myers’ blood for testing.  The police did not secure a warrant to draw or search drunk, unconscious Myers’ blood.

The Court granted the appeal to consider the lawfulness of a warrantless blood draw conducted upon a motorist who, having been arrested for DUI, had then been rendered unconscious by medical personnel before a police officer provided O’Connell warnings and before the officer requested the motorist’s submission to a chemical test. The Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Court of Common Pleas, and Superior Court all held that a blood draw conducted under these circumstances is impermissible, and that the results of the derivative blood test are accordingly inadmissible at trial. Because the seizure of Myers‘ blood violated Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute, 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547, and because no other circumstances justified the failure to obtain a search warrant, the Court affirmed all of the lower courts’ decisions suppressing the blood evidence.

At the intermediate appellate level, in Commonwealth v. Myers, 2015 PA Super 140, 118 A.3d 1122 (Pa. Super. 2015), the court stated that Subsection 1547(b)(1) “provides a driver under arrest with [a] statutory right of refusal to blood testing.” (quoting 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(1)).  Because Myers was unconscious at the time that Officer Domenic requested the blood draw, the court observed that Myers “could not claim the statutory protection” of Subsection 1547(b)(1). 

Superior Court also relies upon Missouri v. McNeely,     U.S.    , 133 S.Ct. 1552, 185 L. Ed. 2d 696 (2013), holding that, “because police did not act pursuant to the implied consent law until 4:45 p.m., after Myers had been rendered unconscious by an intervening cause that occurred subsequent to his DUI arrest and transport to the hospital, … McNeely controls here.”  Like the trial court, Superior Court determines the Commonwealth failed to demonstrate the impracticability of obtaining a warrant prior to the blood draw. Therefore, the panel held that the trial court correctly affirmed the Municipal Court’s order granting Myers‘ motion to suppress.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Commonwealth argues that the implied consent statute establishes a valid exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and that the statutory right to refuse chemical testing does not apply to unconscious arrestees. The Commonwealth’s central premise is that, under 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(a), “any individual who exercises the privilege of driving in Pennsylvania has consented to a blood draw.” 

Although a conscious individual may refuse to submit to a chemical test, the Commonwealth asserts that “[t]here is no law in Pennsylvania that treats an unconscious defendant as having revoked his already-provided consent.”  The Commonwealth faults the Superior Court for “distinguish[ing] between conscious and unconscious drivers without any analysis.” (emphasis omitted). In the Commonwealth’s view, an arrestee’s state of consciousness matters only to the extent that “[u]nconsciousness . . . prevents the suspect from refusing the blood draw,” but it “does not somehow negate his existing consent.”  The Supreme Court categorically rejects this argument.

A review of the DUI informed consent issue is a good place to start.  Consistent with 75 Pa. C.S.A. §1547(c) the Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle code imposes evidentiary admissibility standards for blood tests consensually drawn without a warrant. Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle code addressing driving under the influence (“DUI”) of alcohol or controlled substances, 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3802 (b)(c) & (d) each contain as an essential element of the criminal offense a defendant’s blood alcohol concentration level.

The grading provisions of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle code, 75 Pa. C.S.A. §3803(d), as they relate to DUI charges, identify in subsections 1 through 4 that any individual who is under investigation for violating 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802, et seq., (accusing an individual of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol such that they are incapable of safely driving) and refuses to voluntary submit to a warrant-less blood test, is to receive enhanced criminal sentencing terms of incarceration solely as a result of the refusal to voluntarily submit to the blood draw.

Pennsylvania’s implied consent law requires motorist who drive on our roads to automatically consent to a blood draw if under police investigation for alleged DUI.  75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(2) (prescribing the “duty of the police officer” to inform a DUI arrestee of the consequences of refusal); Pa. Dep’t of Transp., Bureau of Traffic Safety v. O’Connell, 521 Pa. 242, 555 A.2d 873, 877 (Pa. 1989) (“The law has always required that the police must tell the arrestee of the consequences of a refusal to take [a chemical] test so that he can make a knowing and conscious choice.”)  If the operator refuses, no blood draw can take place.  Now after, Birchfield, the motorist can not be criminally penalized for refusing the blood draw.

By operation of the implied consent statute, once a police officer establishes reasonable grounds to suspect that a motorist has committed a DUI offense, that motorist “shall be deemed to have given consent to one or more chemical tests of breath or blood for the purpose of determining the alcoholic content of blood or the presence of a controlled substance.” 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(a). Notwithstanding this provision, Subsection 1547(b)(1) confers upon all individuals under arrest for DUI an explicit statutory right to refuse chemical testing, the invocation of which triggers specified consequences. See 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(1) (“If any person placed under arrest for [DUI] is requested to submit to chemical testing and refuses to do so, the testing shall not be conducted”); Eisenhart, 611 A.2d at 683 (“The statute grants an explicit right to a driver who is under arrest for [DUI] to refuse to consent to chemical testing.”).

The Court rules that under this statutory scheme, a motorist placed under arrest for DUI has a critical decision to make. The arrestee may submit to a chemical test and provide the police with evidence that may be used in a subsequent criminal prosecution, or the arrestee may invoke the statutory right to refuse testing, which: (i) results in a mandatory driver’s license suspension under 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(1); (ii) renders the fact of refusal admissible as evidence in a subsequent DUI prosecution pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(e); and (iii) authorizes heightened criminal penalties under 75 Pa.C.S. § 3804(c) if the arrestee later is convicted of DUI.

Previously, in very certain terms, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has held that, in requesting a chemical test, the police officer must inform the arrestee of the consequences of refusal and notify the arrestee that there is no right to consult with an attorney before making a decision. See O’Connell, 555 A.2d at 877-78.12Link to the text of the note “An arrestee is entitled to this information so that his choice to take a [chemical] test can be knowing and conscious.” Id. at 878. The choice belongs to the arrestee, not the police officer.

In determining the validity of a given consent, the Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing that a consent is the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice — not the result of duress or coercion, express or implied, or a will overborne — under the totality of the circumstances. The standard for measuring the scope of a person’s consent is based on an objective evaluation of what a reasonable person would have understood by the exchange between the officer and the person who gave the consent. Such evaluation includes an objective examination of the maturity, sophistication and mental or emotional state of the defendant. Gauging the scope of a defendant’s consent is an inherent and necessary part of the process of determining, on the totality of the circumstances presented, whether the consent is objectively valid, or instead the product of coercion, deceit, or misrepresentation.  Commonwealth v. Smith, 621 Pa. 218, 77 A.3d 562, 573 (Pa. 2013).

The case of Commonwealth v. Evans, 2016 PA Super 293  (December 20, 2016), is the first major Pennsylvania Appellate Court decision discussing Pennsylvania’s DUI statute, the Implied Consent Law (“O’Connell Warnings”), and the prosecutor’s burden of proof at the suppression hearing.  Evans holds that a defendant does not have to prove they gave consent only based upon the threat of a more severe criminal penalty (jail and further license suspension).  Rather, the statute itself establishes this burden and the Prosecutor must rebut that legal presumption.  Because there is no ability to rebut a presumption of illegitimate consent when threatened with enhanced jail penalties, all motions to suppress must be granted.

Myers takes Evans one step further, finding that “Subsection 1547(b)(1) does not distinguish in any way between conscious and unconscious individuals, but, rather, provides the statutory right of refusal to “any person placed under arrest” for DUI. 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(1) (emphasis added). By its plain meaning, “any person” necessarily includes an unconscious person. Accordingly, we hold that Myers had an absolute right to refuse chemical testing pursuant to the implied consent statute, that his unconscious state prevented him from making a knowing and conscious choice as to whether to exercise that right, and that the implied consent statute does not authorize a blood test conducted under such circumstances.”

Northampton County’s 1861 Court Room!!

Finding the diamond in the rough. That describes my recent drive to the Northampton County Courthouse. As my law practice takes me from the Philadelphia’s suburban counties to northeastern Pennsylvania, I routinely travel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and its Northeast extension.
The drive this July week was rough. The weather forecast proved accurate; rain and fog through the Lehigh Valley. It was raining so hard, I missed my exit off Rt 476E at Rt 22 E. I drove an additional 20 miles each direction, turning around in Jim Thorpe. (I love the Carbon County Courthouse – see my other blogs – but I was not going there today.)
 I was uncharacteristically late, arriving at 9:25 am for a 9:00 am hearing.  I was otherwise safe.  The judge was extremely gracious and polite. The case was handled quickly.  Opposing counsel – a local assistant district attorney – offered a tour of the courthouse as I expressed my appreciation for our hearing taking place in the old courthouse, courtroom 3, as compared to the new 2004 building.
The county website states, “The original court house was built in  1764. Nearly a century later and after the courthouse had experienced a number of historical events, which included being used as a barracks by Revolutionary troops, a group of citizens petitioned for a new County Courthouse at a different location. On August 23, 1860, the County Commissioners decided to accept land offered at a price of $1.00 that was located several blocks west of the original facility.   A new brick structure was later built on a steep hill at a cost of $53,000. The first term of court was held in the new facility on June 18, 1861.  Since then, two additional wings were constructed to accommodate the growth of Northampton County and satisfy the judicial needs of the expanded population.  The second part of the courthouse was built in 1978 and the third in 2004. “
I was interested in the 1861 building and court room 1.  Finished at the out set of the Civil War.   Wow!! A majestic legal theater, refurbished in 1978 to match the import to the community when the courthouse was built. Original woodwork, plaster, and paint are renewed. County Commissioners rightfully chose to not clutter the court room with of a phalanx of computer cables, microphones, and other modern day accoutrements that clutter some other county courtrooms in which I practice.
The pictures below reveal the courtroom’s grand entrance, judicial bench, and the jury box of the times. The remarkable woodwork and attention to detail immediately reveals itself. The artisans of Pennsylvania’s counties knew their work would be on display at every important and public event of the times. The honor and respect they earned working for their local government on the most important building in the county.

Call a Lawyer, Not the Licensing Board, When Contacted by Board Counsel or Investigators

My administrative law practice takes me before many of Pennsylvania’s licensing boards and in hearings that address a variety of disciplinary actions.  It is during Pennsylvania’s professional licensing boards’ bimonthly meetings that disciplinary matters are commenced, reviewed, or finalized.  This is why after a given board’s monthly meeting I typically receive a wave of calls from new clients, mail that initiates disciplinary action in pending cases, or final decisions in cases.

Potential disciplinary actions a board may commence include: 1) reciprocal disciplinary actions; 2) emergency petitions to immediately take a license; 3) objections to license applications; 4)  approval of different consent agreements; 5) approval or rejection of hearing officer’s proposed adjudications; and 6) reviewing cases sent back from the Commonwealth Court for issuance of revised disciplinary action. Also, several boards have subcommittees that approve probable cause petitions compelling licensees to undergo mental and physical of evaluations.

After bimonthly board meetings I receive calls from both current or potential clients inquiring “What I should do? Who should I talk to?  or What information should be disclosed?   Many callers disclose prior conversations with board counsel, investigators, PHMP assessors, or other board representatives. I cringe when I hear this.

 

Board representatives, prosecutors, administrators, and/or medical professionals do not represent the licensee. These people are tasked with enforcing board regulations. They are tasked with complying with each and every administrative procedural requirement (of which the licensee has no idea). They are tasked with securing information against the licensee who is potentially, or actually, subject to disciplinary action. These people do not look out for the best interest of the licensee.  DO NOT TALK TO THESE PEOPLE ABOUT YOUR CASE, FACTS, OR MEDICAL CONDITIONS.  THEY WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN.

 

Board administrators and PHMP office staff are not sophisticated licensed professionals. They are unfamiliar with the actual medical issues, legal issues, or licensing process. They merely perform administrative functions. They lack any authority to adjust, regulate, or modify any correspondence.  Relying upon statements from these administrative level workers is frustrating and leads to incorrect practices.

 

I have heard on many occasions board clerical staff and social workers advise licensees and/or license applicants to cooperate – give statements or do other inaccurate suggestions – that are not in the licensees best interest.  Administrative workers routinely do not recommend hiring counsel to secure a better, more complete, or correct legal advice on how to respond to the legal correspondence  just received in the mail.

 

That is why I say do not contact these boards, rely upon what any administrator says, or even hope that they give you correct advice. Call an attorney and secure proper legal advice.  The best analogy I can give is: Do you call a doctor’s office and follow medical advice dispensed by the phone receptionist or want to talk to RN, LPN, or M.D.?  The obvious answer is no.  So why would you do that when calling a licensing board about your professional license you utilize every day?

 

Please call me to discuss the recent board ordered disciplinary correspondence you just received!

Try to Recognize when an Attorney is Needed

When is it important to hire an attorney in a licensing and criminal defense case? When case agent first contacts you!  Do not talk to them.  Just say thank you, I will call you back; can we meet next week; no you can not come into my house!!
Every day licensing board investigators, police detectives, human resource departments, or other government investigators reach out to targets or “individuals of interest” in a wide range of potential investigations. These law enforcement officers (most state investigators are retired police detectives) are trained to secure statements from the subject of the investigation.  They call you, show up at your house, or try to meet with you at work.  This is when you know you need a lawyer.

My blogs generate phone calls from potential clients.  A recent theme of these calls sticks out;  investigators are employing consistent, heightened and aggressive investigative techniques to surreptitiously secure statements and admissions of criminal conduct, unprofessional licensing behavior, or illegal behavior.  This is explained in one sentence; why do an investigation when an admission from the target will solve the case.

Targets give statements for one reason: ignorance and naïve understanding of the law.   Targets  or potential criminal defendants give statements because they think they are obligated to cooperate, should cooperate, or that cooperating is in their best interest.  These reasons are incorrect.
Admitting to engaging in questionable or criminal conduct eliminates investigator’s obligation and duty of proving their case through means other than an admission by the target.  Admissions to detectives and investigators eliminates their need to perform basic investigator police work.  It satisfies  the police officer’s burden of proof in securing evidence of illegal or criminal conduct against you.
Licensees who admit to a Board investigator to practicing outside the scope of their license, stealing from their clients, overcharging for services, or any other offense does the investigator’s job.  In many cases, before the statement is secured, there is only a mere suspicion of inappropriate behavior.  There is no specific evidence of a criminal act. The statement itself becomes the evidence against you. The person giving the statement creates the criminal evidence for the investigator that they did not otherwise have.   (I feel the same way  about licensees who cooperate in the PHMP VRP assessments.  Do not give the Board’s any evidence they do not have.)
Once a criminal admission is given, the police officers don’t do anymore work. The state investigators don’t do anymore work. This is why there is no legal obligation to cooperate.
Giving statements to employers in work place investigations has the same ultimate result. I have written about this many times. Choosing to not give a blood test, write a personal statement, or even provide copies of medical records cannot be held against you. You can be fired, but it can’t be held against you. At times it’s more important to choose to remain silent then to keep your job.  Anything you say in the employment setting is merely turned over to the board investigator or police.
Remaining silent and not cooperating with any investigation  — not disclosing truly damaging information — sometimes is the best defense of your license or against criminal charges.  Do not succumb to the police officer bullying. Suggestions by police that they can secure search or arrest warrants should not persuade you to give up your constitutional rights.
You do not have to give a statement. You do not have to give a DNA test. You do not have to participate in any polygraph evaluation.   If the officer does not believe your word or accept your version of events, agreeing to provide objective forensic evidence will not change their mind. You will just be giving them evidence to accumulate and use against you at a later date.
Hopefully you have the opportunity to read this blog before you have spoken to an investigator about a licensing issue, participated in the workplace related investigation, or cooperated with any police inquiry inquiry about your job or your behavior. If not, call me as soon as possible.
Whether you hire me or any other lawyer, stop stop cooperating with any police investigation.

Road Riding in the Counties

My personal and business travel is taking me to more counties throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania than ever before. The local courthouse houses in the county seats are really interesting for me. The court houses — arenas of legal combat — are throw backs to more glorious days when the local big trial was the event of the year.
In the past I took for granted these architectural gems that are spread throughout the various townships and boroughs within which I practice.   Now, I seek out and explore the courthouses. Whether by car or bike, I am having fun.
This spring I bought myself a road bike. I ride ferociously around the eastern part of Pennsylvania. I have the pleasure of routinely riding through Philadelphia,  Conshohocken, Norristown, and Valley Forge Park. All are within 5-15 miles of my house.  Sometimes I ride from my house to Philadelphia and back.
A recent Saturday took me on a further ride — from West Chester to the City of Lancaster. The road ride began in West Chester and ended in Lancaster County, behind the Court House. We departed West Chester through its southern rolling-hills of Brandywine Township. We followed Brandywine Creek through East Bradford Township, Downingtown  to West Fallowfield Township. One word — marvelous.
After 90 minutes the group ride, with me at the back of the pack, entered Lancaster County. I was greeted by signs for farm fresh brown eggs, personally constructed homes, garages, sheds, and wonderful antique tractors.
Tractors, tractors, tractors. But not your ordinary tractors.  These were green, yellow and red tractors, pulled by horses. The drawn mowing tractors were hard at work, gas free, mowing lawns and fields. Some tractors were too tired to work, gathering rust. There was no worry about rubber tires rotting. Metal wheels needed no repairs.
The morning aromas changed with each turn in the road. Pungent cow, horse, pig dung awoke my sinuses.  Crushed wild blackberries and dripping vines of honeysuckles permeated homesteads. The morning dew clung to grass blades and tree branches through the Brandywine Creek bike route. Entering Lancaster and riding down Duke Street brought with it fresh bakery smells and the Lancaster County brewing Company.
In each county seat, I look for a small coffee shop. Lancaster’s Prince Street Café did not disappoint. The fresh cappuccino after a 50 mile ride awakened all of my exhausted senses. Orange juice and fresh eggs on a croissant made me even happier. The pictures below reflects the quaintness of the café and the wonderful effort the bakers and barista’s gave the Saturday morning breakfast crowd.
An unexpected joy came as I began to get ready for my drive home. Just to the west of the Prince Street Café is the Lancaster County Donuts Shop. Homemade donuts and holes are sold with every conceivable topping — as if I was in an ice cream shop — tantalized my taste buds. The sublime chocolate with vanilla cream cheese frosting carried me through the rest of my day.
I could not have been happier. Content and satisfied by a hard work out, great ride with new friends and a bulging stomach.  Blair and Clearfield counties also did not disappoint. I’ll keep you posted.
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