For the most part, North Carolina’s criminal laws are fair. In general our laws apply the proper level of punishment for the crime. Though I fight on a daily basis to convince DA’s and judges that my clients should receive the minimum amount of time they are facing, I can remove my Defense Attorney hat for a moment and acknowledge that generally the “system” finds a reasonable outcome. That said, there are two laws that I deal with on a regular basis that have frightened me since I first encountered them. As the father of an infant boy who will someday be a teenager and susceptible to these two laws, I now lose sleep at night.
I set out to write about these laws not with the disenchanted notion that I could change them, but rather in hopes of educating other parents of the absurdity of these laws in hopes they will in turn educate their teenage children. In exploring these laws it became apparent to me they are far too important to share a single article. Therefore, I chose to divide the discussion into two separate blogs with a common theme. Tune in soon for part two.
LOCK UP YOUR PILLS
As a teenager, a good friend of mine (I’ll not mention his name because he has convinced his own family he was perfect in those days) and I looked forward to each Saturday night. I would invite this friend to stay the night at my house and my parents would generally go out for dinner with another couple. My friend and I would wait a sufficient bit of time to insure the adults wouldn’t return for some forgotten item and we would then break out a bottle of liquor from the dark depths of my parent’s liquor cabinet. We would be careful to take only a small amount from various bottles so as not to draw attention to our misdeeds. Though what we did was wrong, in a way it was innocent. We didn’t drink enough to come close to intoxication. We were 15 years old so neither could legally drive. By the time the adults returned from dinner our little buzzes had generally worn off.
Teenagers today live in a world far different from the one in which I came of age. I feel like an old timer writing such things about today’s “whippersnappers”, but it’s true. In the last 15 years the Internet has moved from infancy to a mainstay in most households, bringing with it social media in all its forms, online gaming and chat, and music and video libraries at the touch of a button. As a teenager, my cell phone was akin to the old WWII walkie talkies used to call in Kraut positions seen in black and white movies , whereas now smart-phones do everything but fold our laundry. In addition we have been attacked by terrorists and entered two wars (not counting small skirmishes). But the frightening trend among today’s teens is their susceptibility to bypass the parents’ liquor cabinet in favor of the medicine cabinet.
Such medications as Oxycontin, Oxycodone, Percocet, Methadone, Vicodin and other various painkillers and muscle relaxers are replacing the heisted mixed drink with frightening regularity among today’s teens. Pills are easy to access, easy to conceal and its nearly impossible to detect when one or two are removed from a pill bottle. In addition, even “religious” households that frown on alcohol use can have a readily accessible supply of pills. Add to this the fact that they generally provide a strong, sustained high without the concern of the smell of alcohol on the breath. This has only become possible because far more adults have a stockpile of these meds in their medicine cabinet for teens to access. My personal theory is that more “Baby Boomers” are reaching the age where ailments are becoming unbearable, Doctors are becoming more willing to write scripts for these ailments, and parents and grandparents are simply ignorant as to the dangers of leaving pills unlocked and easily accessible to teens.
The problem with these meds is multifaceted. There is always the possibility of an allergic reaction or even more likely an overdose. Most “painkillers” contain doses of very powerful narcotics that must be taken in small doses. All these concerns are legit but I’ll save that analysis for the scientists. It’s the legal ramifications of this trend that I want to focus on.
Place yourself in the position of a teen to consider how the scenario may play itself out. You’re a 17 year old high school junior in the closing weeks of school before summer break. Your friend’s parents are leaving town for the week, and there is a big end of school party planned for this Saturday night at his house. Friday morning, while in home room, you overhear two kids talking. It seems that last weekend, one of the kids took some pills from the his mother’s medicine cabinet. The two classmates took the pills and were “MESSED UP”. Curious, you ask them what kind of medicine it was they took. They reply “Oxycontin”, to which you respond, “Oh, my dad has a whole bottle of those left over from when he had his back surgery.” One of the students inquires whether you are planning to come to the party tomorrow night. You respond that you are coming. They say “grab some of your dad’s pills and we can take them. It’ll be fun.” The next night you walk into your parent’s bathroom and remove 6 pills from a 60 count bottle. They will never be missed, and should result in a good time tonight. On the way to the party you get pulled for speeding. The officer is a bit zealous and asks you to step out of the car. A pat down reveals the 6 pills in your pocket. The officer checks his pill dictionary and determines that the 6 pills you have, based on the size, are enough to qualify you to be charged with Trafficking in Heroine. That’s right, TRAFFICKING IN HEROINE.
If that is not frightening enough, consider the statutory punishment for this charge. In North Carolina, trafficking charges carry their own special punishment outside the normal “sentencing grid” for which most felonies are punished. As it pertains to heroine (a great number of pain medications have doses of heroine, opiates or a derivative in them), trafficking sentences are as follows:
Greater than 4, but less than 14 grams………….. 70-84 months
Greater than 14, but less than 28 grams………….90-117 months
Greater than 28 grams, …………………………………..225-279 months
In North Carolina, all felony charges, with the exception of trafficking and first degree murder, take into consideration the offender’s prior record. The month totals listed above apply to an offender even if he has a spotless criminal record. The most frightening aspect of our trafficking laws is that the sentences listed above are MANDATORY ACTIVE sentences. By law, if a person is convicted of trafficking in heroine, a judge MUST sentence him to an active sentence in one of the categories listed. The only way a judge can legally stray from this obligation is if it is shown that the Defendant provided “substantial assistance” to law enforcement; that is, he participated in a large number of undercover buys of drugs that lead to the arrest and conviction of other people.
Still not concerned? What if I told you that, with some of the more powerful pain pills, as few as five pills can equal more than 4 grams heroine or opiates? So, going back to our example above; What happens to you as a 17 year old on the way to an end of school party if you are found in possession of 6 Oxycontin’s and charged with trafficking in heroine? You have two options. You can work with law enforcement and participate in undercover drug buys in hopes the officer will vouch that you have provided “substantial assistance”, allowing a judge to at least consider sentencing you to something other than an active prison sentence, or, you can go to prison for anywhere between 70 and 279 months, depending on how strong your pills are. So what happens if you don’t know any drug dealers to set up? After all, your drug dealer in our hypothetical is your father and the doctor who prescribed his meds. You better bring your toothbrush to court.
Though the intent of this law is to target serious drug dealers, the practical application of it can have devastating consequences and can in fact, ruin your child’s life. Sadly enough, I have seen it happen.
Helpful links on this subject