Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Drug Addicts on Probation may be Ordered to Remain Drug Free

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court concluded yesterday that a judge has the authority to order a defendant on probation to refrain from using drugs, even if the defendant is addicted to drugs.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Eldred.

In 2016, the defendant stole jewelry from the victim’s home and then sold the jewelry for money to buy drugs.  The defendant told the police she was addicted to heroin.  A Concord District Court judge continued the defendant’s case without a finding and placed her on probation for one year.  A condition of the defendant’s probation required her to remain drug free, to be randomly tested, and to participate in outpatient drug counseling three times per week.  The defendant began her outpatient treatment but only 11 days after pleading out her case, the defendant tested positive for fentanyl.  The defendant’s probation officer urged her to enter an inpatient drug program and when she refused, the probation officer asked the judge to hold the defendant without bail until a final probation surrender hearing could be conducted.  The defendant failed her drug test the Friday before Labor Day and her parents had left town.  The probation officer argued that the defendant lacked the proper support system to be released back into the community having tested positive for fentanyl.  The judge agreed and held the defendant without bail until a bed at an inpatient treatment facility became available.  Ten days later, the defendant left jail and entered an inpatient facility.  At a subsequent probation violation hearing, the judge determined the defendant had violated the drug free condition of her probation.  The judge ordered the defendant to continue her inpatient treatment program.  The defendant appealed, essentially arguing that because she was a drug addict, she could not control her urge to use drugs.  Because she was unable to control her addition, she had not intentionally used drugs and she shouldn’t be found in violation of her probation.  The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed.

The Court pointed out that probation is an alternative to a jail sentence.  Probation is intended to rehabilitate the defendant and protect the community from the defendant if she commits a new crime.  Judges have great flexibility in imposing probationary conditions to achieve these goals, and conditions will be upheld as long as they are reasonably related to the goals of sentencing and probation.  In this case, the underlying cause of the larceny was the defendant’s addiction.  Therefore, it was clearly appropriate for the judge to order her not to use drugs while on probation.  The Court also held that it was appropriate in this case for the judge to hold the defendant without bail pending a final probation violation hearing.  The judge was presented with two options; either take the defendant into custody or allow her to walk out the door with a compromised support system.  The judge ordered the defendant to be detained only after an inpatient drug program was not immediately available.  The SJC rejected the defendant’s argument that she was being punished for relapsing, and pointed out that any sanction resulting from a probation violation is punishment for the underlying crime.  Further, the defendant’s detention was aimed at protecting the public (along with the defendant).