THE BLOG
12/07/2006 11:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cruel and Unusual: 25 Years for Taking Own Pain Meds

In a mind-boggling act of sadistic legal legal buck-passing (I can't bring myself to glorify it with the word "reasoning"), the Florida District Court of Appeals upheld a 25 year mandatory minimum sentence for a Florida man convicted of "drug trafficking" for possessing his own pain medication.

Richard Paey is a wheelchair-bound father of three young children. He has no prior criminal record-- in fact, he's an Ivy League law school graduate. He has not one, but two extensively documented and excruciatingly painful chronic disorders: multiple sclerosis and chronic back pain due to an injury suffered in a car accident that was treated by a surgery that made matters worse. (This surgery was so egregiously misguided that TV exposes and numerous large malpractice judgments resulted). Paey has already been in prison for three long years.

In prison-- a place not exactly known for medical kindness-- he has been given a morphine pump, which now daily gives him similar or higher doses of medication than he was convicted of possessing illegally.

So why is he serving 25 years? Tipped off by a pharmacist ignorant of pain management, Florida authorities decided that the doses of painkillers he was receiving were so high that he had to be selling the drugs, not taking them. They found no evidence of this, however, even after putting him under surveillance for months.

But they did manage to convince his New Jersey doctor-- who Paey claims authorized his prescriptions-- to testify that, in fact, Paey was forging them. The doctor was told that he would face a similarly lengthy prison sentence for trafficking if he'd authorized such high doses for a patient who had moved from New Jersey to Florida. (See here for why he had reason to fear, despite prescribing legitimately and appropriately).

To add to the exquisite ironies of the case, the reason Paey qualified for such a lengthy sentence was due largely to his possession of acetaminophen (Tylenol), not opioids. Paey was taking pills that included acetaminophen and oxycodone-- but the state counted the weight of the acetaminophen towards the weight of illegal drugs when it determined the charges that led to his sentence.

In upholding his sentence, the majority argued that it was not so "grossly disproportionate" as to be "cruel or unusual" under Florida's constitution. It is the legislature's role, they said, to determine the appropriate laws based on harm done by drugs to the community and prior case has law upheld lengthy mandatory minimums for drug crimes.

Essentially, since Paey's sentence wasn't death or life without parole, it was OK, even though it was a nonviolent first offense committed by a person suffering extreme pain without evidence that he was actually planning on selling drugs. Paey's family-- who had been hoping he'd be home for Christmas-- will have to wait.

The bottom line, for the majority, was that the law had been applied appropriately. Because the outcome was unjust in this particular case, Paey should seek clemency from the governor, not appellate court relief. Noting that the facts of the case "evoke sympathy" for Paey, they concluded that "Mr. Paey's argument about his sentences does not fall on deaf ears, but it falls on the wrong ears."

The only glimmer of hope was the thundering dissent by Judge James Seals. He gave hypothetical examples of situations in which an innocent person could be similarly convicted of drug trafficking by dint of simple possession of large quantities of drugs. He then concluded:

I suggest that it is cruel for a man with an undisputed medical need for a substantial amount of daily medication management to go to prison for twenty-five years for using self-help means to obtain and amply supply himself with the medicine he needed...

I suggest that it is unusual, illogical, and unjust that Mr. Paey could conceivably go to prison for a longer stretch for peacefully but unlawfully purchasing 100 oxycodone pills from a pharmacist than had he robbed the pharmacist at knife point, stolen fifty oxycodone pills which he intended to sell to children waiting outside, and then stabbed the pharmacist...

It is illogical, absurd, cruel, and unusual for the government to put Mr. Paey in prison for twenty-five years for foolishly and desperately pursuing his self-help solution to his medical management problems, and then go to prison only to find that the prison medical staff is prescribing the same or similar medication he had sought on the outside but could not legitimately obtain. That fact alone clearly proves what his intent for purchasing the drugs was. What a tragic irony.

In a letter to the governor requesting clemency, Paey's attorney, John Flannery, wrote, "In more than thirty years of practice as an appellate law clerk in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and a federal prosecutor and as a practicing appellate and trial lawyer, I have never seen an opinion such as this in which the Court agreed the sentence was wrong but could not agree on how to correct it."

This is a sorry time for justice in America-- and an even sorrier time for the media, which continues to ignore the ongoing disgrace of our drug laws and their enforcement. (For more information and to help support Paey and others caught up in the war on pain doctors and their patients, visit the Pain Relief Network.)