As our Gainesville legal blog readers know, some of the most serious criminal charges a person can face involve illegal drugs. However, a recent federal appeals court ruling sets a precedent that gives hope to those facing drug charges that include addictive opioid drugs.
The appeals court overturned a 17-year prison sentence for a woman who developed a “severe opioid addiction” after she was prescribed them as a teen. She later pled guilty to unlawful possession with intent to distribute.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a district judge didn’t adequately consider the South Carolina woman’s addiction imposing the sentence, and that her attorney didn’t adequately represent her at sentencing.
In a dissenting opinion, one of the three judges on the panel noted that this was the first time the circuit overturned a sentence as unreasonable though it was within sentencing guidelines.
Three years ago, Precias Freeman was sentenced after admitting that she forged prescriptions for hydrocodone and oxycodone for her own use and in order to sell the drugs to others.
Her sentence was based on an estimate that her possession with intent to distribute violation involved 175,200 illegally obtained pills. A judge writing for the appeals court panel majority noted that Freeman’s attorney didn’t contest the estimate, though it contradicted her testimony.
The judge also noted that there was no evidence “that Freeman was ever violent or associated with anyone engaged in violence.”
The judge also wrote that the district court’s reference to opioids “was only to condemn Freeman for selling them.” He said that while that was an appropriate factor for the court to consider when imposing its sentence, “it also does not reflect the full picture.”
He said the “disparate sentence merited a downward variance” from federal sentencing guidelines.
According to a Reuters Legal article, Freeman developed an addiction “after she was prescribed hydrocodone after breaking her tailbone in 2000.”
The dissenting appeals court judge wrote that though Freeman and her attorney both spoke about her addiction at sentencing, nothing they said provided a reason to lessen her sentence – a punishment in line with sentences imposed in comparable cases.
The precedent could help pave the way for more reasonable sentences in cases involving defendants whose serious addictions led to violations of drug possession and drug trafficking laws.