Recovering Addict Sues Pennington County for Breaching Confidentiality

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?


6 Responses to Recovering Addict Sues Pennington County for Breaching Confidentiality

  1. mike from iowa

    Hasn’t the state dept of social services been proven to be biased against Indians?

    Looks pretty obvious the federal law was violated.

  2. bearcreekbat

    The regulations at 42 CFR Part 2 implement the federal statute 42 U.S.C. 290ee-3. Subsection (a) of this statute provides:

    Records of the identity, diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment of any patient which are maintained in connection with the performance of any drug abuse prevention function conducted, regulated, or directly or indirectly assisted by any department or agency of the United States shall, except as provided in subsection (e) of this section, be confidential and be disclosed only for the purposes and under the circumstances expressly authorized under subsection (b) of this section.

    Subsection (b) has no provision authorizing disclosure to law enforcement absent a court order. Subsection (c) provides:

    Except as authorized by a court order granted under subsection (b)(2)(C) of this section, no record referred to in subsection (a) of this section may be used to initiate or substantiate any criminal charges against a patient or to conduct any investigation of a patient.

    See: https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/42/2.1

    If the county-run drug treatment center obtained some federal funding, it would be subject to these provisions and would have violated the statute by disclosing the woman’s “identity” to law enforcement without a court order. If, however, that program receives no federal dollars and is funded and controlled locally, then the federal statute likely does not apply nor prevent disclosure of a patient’s identity to law enforcement.

  3. Stace Nelson

    Curious how many have been prosecuted for positive uranalisys or blood testing done upon admittance. Seems counterproductive and in conflict with the propaganda they pushed on SB70 several years ago. This doesn’t make sense at all.

    While the actual usage of illegal drugs is not violent criminal activity, many of the criminal acts associated with the addiction are.

    The get weak on crime push of SB70 has caused SD’s crime rate to balloon.

  4. There is big time money in it for the police and all who are involved. Barristers get a huge chunk, jailers, pee readers and all others. This is a racket that we taxpayers continue to get shouldered with. The state hires more highway patrolmen, the county hires more law enforcement, it just balloons. These kinds of things are just exactly like what happened to us with gambling. The taxpayer looses his arse to feather the nests of cops and robbers alike.

  5. Matt from SD

    Very unfortunate for this lady. Grateful she eventually managed to find help. Had she been a well-educated, affluent, caucasian woman – would she have had the same experience? I think not.

    When seeking help gets you incarcerated, it gives others yet another excuse to NOT get help for addiction. Untreated addiction = huge cost for taxpayers. Think addiction treatment cost is high – what about untreated addiction?

  6. What is your direct correlation evidence between SB70 and increased crime Mr. Nelson?