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Court of Appeals Rules Against Prosecution of Addicted Mothers, Favors Treatment

On August 3, 2006, Maryland's Court of Appeals issued a major victory for rational, humane public health policy relating to drug addiction.  In the case of Kelly Lynn Cruz v. State of Maryland, the Court ruled that a woman who ingests drugs while pregnant is not subject to criminal prosecution for reckless endangerment of her fetus or future child. Siding with every state court that has ruled on the issue (with the exception of South Carolina) and the weight of medical science, the Court of Appeals recognized that prosecution and incarceration of addicted mothers will only drive them away from health care, when the mothers and their offspring would benefit greatly from prenatal care and drug treatment.

The case involved the Talbot County, Maryland State Attorney’s decision to criminally prosecute a woman under the theory that her ingestion of cocaine during pregnancy contributed to the birth of her son with a low birth weight.  The Circuit Court for Talbot County found the woman guilty of violating the state crime of endangering the welfare of another and sentenced her to five years.  The Court of Appeals decision overturns the conviction. The Court of Appeals held that Maryland’s reckless endangerment statute was not intended to criminalize conduct of a pregnant woman that might endanger the later born child.  Otherwise, the Court noted that under the State's theory, even lawful activities that might reasonably be expected to endanger a child -- such as smoking, skiing or horse back riding -- might produce criminal liability.

At the Court of Appeals, Ms. Cruz was represented by David Rocah and Deborah Jeon of the ACLU of Maryland. The Public Justice Center and co-counsel National Advocates for Pregnant Women submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the International Center for the Advancement of Opioid Dependence, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (National and Maryland chapters), Maryland Society of Addiction Medicine, NAADC – the Association for Addiction Professional, Obstetrical and Gynecological Society of Maryland, and 34 other concerned organizations and professionals. Our brief contended that the trial court’s decision lacked foundation in law and medical science and informed the Court of the dangers the trial court’s decision portends for pregnant women, their children, treatment professionals, and their patients in general. The Court of Appeals adopted the reasoning of our brief in its opinion by noting that criminalizing the ingestion of controlled substances contradicts public policy.  Specifically, the Court of Appeals noted that (1) no clear cause and effect relationship between a woman’s drug use and injuries to the fetus; and (2) in most cases, a woman’s use of drugs during pregnancy is the result of her inability to control her addiction in the absence of treatment programs.  PJC’s amicus brief was written by Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Roscoe Jones, Jr., Suzanne Sangree, Director of Appellate Advocacy at the PJC and Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

An article on the Court's decision from the Daily Record can be found here and one from the Baltimore Sun can be found here.



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