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News of the Day ... In Perspective

08/24/2006

Pain doctor’s conviction overturned

Because U.S. District Judge William Wexler improperly told jurors they could not consider whether Dr. William Hurwitz acted in good faith when he prescribed large doses of opioids, his conviction for violating federal drug laws has been vacated by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded for retrial.

“We cannot say that no reasonable juror could have concluded that Hurwitz’s conduct fell within an objectively-defined good faith standard,” wrote the three-judge Circuit Court panel. Hurwitz, the judges noted, had presented evidence that he ran a legitimate medical practice and believed that his prescriptions were “medically proper.”

Prosecutors “overreached in this case and tried to exert federal control over the practice of medicine,” stated Marvin Miller, Hurwitz’s trial attorney.

“It’s about time that courts start to realize that these are doctors, not drug dealers,” stated AAPS Public Affairs Counsel Kathryn Serkes. The Hurwitz case is perhaps the most prominent of many federal prosecutions targeting physicians whose patients divert or abuse their prescribed pain medications (Washington Post 8/23/06).

The most dangerous aspect of this case, Serkes noted, is that the government used Hurwitz’s good-faith efforts to treat his patients and inquire whether they might be diverting as evidence of participation in a conspiracy to distribute drugs.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision was “a stunning defeat for the federal prosecutors, who vowed to go after pain doctors as though they were the Taliban,” stated AAPS General Counsel Andrew Schlafly, who authored the AAPS amicus brief supporting Hurwitz’s appeal. “The arrest, trial, and sentencing of Dr. Hurwitz reflected numerous abuses and distortions by the government.” He described the sentence of 25 years, the equivalent of life imprisonment, as “shocking.”

The government initially objected to the filing of the AAPS amicus brief, in which Point I is the argument unanimously accepted by the Circuit judges.

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