Speaking of addiction, Pennington County is facing a lawsuit in federal court over arresting a meth addict who sought treatment but showed up at the City County Alcohol Drug Program center with a drug syringe in her pocket.
RCJ’s Mike Anderson offers an excellent account of the suit brought by medical epidemiologist Jennifer Giroux on behalf of an anonymous 22-year-old American Indian woman who spent over 200 days in jail because of a conviction for possession of a syringe with meth residue found by treatment center staff. The suit revolves around a federal confidentiality law:
Passed in 1972, federal regulation 42 CFR Part 2 requires drug treatment programs to maintain strict confidentiality of all patient records. The young woman’s lawsuit argues that her patient information was illegally divulged to the Pennington County Sheriff’s office by employees of the county-run drug treatment center. That information was then used by the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s office to charge her with a crime in direct violation of 42 CFR Part 2, the lawsuit alleges [Mike Anderson, “Woman Sues Pennington County Authorities for Alleged Violations of Her Civil Rights,” Rapid City Journal, 2016.07.24].
The federal law obviously intends encourage addicts to seek treatment by reducing the chance of legal trouble. Anderson explains this statute is stricter than HIPAA, the usual medical privacy rules, and usually requires a court order for disclosure of patient information to law enforcement unless “a serious ‘threat to life or bodily injury’ has been or is about to be committed” at the treatment center. No court ordered the disclosure of the 22-year-old woman’s information.
Giroux and her 22-year-old plaintiff have gotten no support from authorities for their claim. Pennington County, the state Department of Social Services, and U.S. Attorney Randolph J. Seiler have all said the county did nothing wrong in prosecuting the woman who sought treatment. Anderson reports that the U.S. Office of Civil Rights has said the county violated confidentiality but won’t take action unless another complaint arises.
However the lawsuit works out in federal court, the fundamental policy question is whether we treat drug use as a crime or as a disease. People choose to take that first shot; biology and sociology make it harder to resist taking each subsequent shot. When a drug user finds the strength to turn away from drugs and seeks help to stop for good, should we subject that person to punishment beyond the painful withdrawal and recovery process?