Monday, January 6, 2014
C.A. Rejects ‘Prescription Defense’ for Man Holding Pills for Patient
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A man who claimed he was holding pills for a friend, the person for whom the medication was prescribed, was not entitled to a “prescription defense” instruction, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
In a 2-1 ruling, the justices held that when a statute proscribes the possession or transportation of a controlled substance, but provides an exemption when the drug has been lawfully prescribed, only the person named in the prescription may plead the exemption as a defense.
The court upheld Matthew Carboni’s conviction on charges of possession of morphine, hydrocodone and diazepam as well as transportation of morphine and hydrocodone. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence G. Brown placed him on Proposition 36 probation, but stayed execution of sentence pending appeal.
Carboni was arrested in 2009 when he was unable to produce identification following a traffic stop near UC Davis Medical Center. A search of his person revealed a bottle containing more than 200 pills, which he identified as controlled substances and claimed were for his personal use, and more than $400 in cash.
The bottle’s label was scratched off, but at trial, a friend of the defendant, identified in the opinion only as Timothy T., testified that the pills were his. He testified that he had been prescribed them for a number of medical conditions, and that he had given them to Carboni for safekeeping because he had no place to put them after his pill box was crushed in an accident that occurred while Carboni and other friends were helping him move.
Confirmation of Events
Carboni confirmed Timothy T.’s version of events. He said he lied to the officer about the pills being for his personal use because he was driving a company car and thought at the time that if he could “just take the blame,” it was less likely that the vehicle would be seized and his employer implicated.
Prosecutors stipulated that Timothy T. had valid prescriptions for all three substances. But they objected to the defense proposal that jurors be instructed that they could not find Carboni guilty unless he “unlawfully” possessed the drugs, or if the pills were lawfully prescribed by a physician.
Brown denied the proposed instructions, and the Court of Appeal majority agreed.
Justice Harry Hull rejected the defense contention that the prescription defense extends to someone who possesses the drug with the patient’s consent and for the patient’s benefit.
“The statutory language at issue in this matter is clear and unambiguous. As regularly understood, a prescription identifies both a controlled substance and a specific patient. Thus, the ‘person’ to whom the language of the statutes applies is the person for whom the prescription was written. The words, ‘unless upon the written prescription of a physician, dentist, podiatrist, or veterinarian,’ in the sections at issue here, clearly modify the act of possession or transportation by the person for whom the prescription is written….It is not enough that the drugs in question were issued pursuant to a valid prescription, to be possessed or transported later by anyone with a noncriminal reason for doing so. “
He cited cases that have narrowly construed the “momentary” or “transitory” possession defense to possession of controlled substances, limiting it to the situation in which a person takes possession only for the length of time needed to dispose of the drugs.
Hull acknowledged that the court might be creating “something of a legal conundrum” that would permit the prosecution of someone who picks up a drug at a pharmacy for someone who is at home ill. “But, if this difficulty is at all significant in practical terms, it is for the Legislature, not the court, to remedy it,” the jurist wrote.
Justice Ronald Robie concurred in the opinion, but Justice William J. Murray Jr. dissented.
Murray argued that the statutes are ambiguous, so Carboni is entitled to the benefit of an interpretation consistent with his argument.
The Legislature, Murray wrote, did not intend to “criminalize common, everyday activity involving the handling of prescription medications by someone authorized to do so by the prescription holder.”
The court, he argued, should avoid such a result “by construing the language, ‘upon the . . . prescription of a physician’ to encompass possession and transportation of a controlled substance by a person other than the patient for whom the controlled substance was prescribed when the possession or transportation is consistent with the prescription.”
“Possession or transportation of a controlled substance is consistent with the prescription when the possession or transportation benefits the patient by facilitating the prescribed use of the drug. Any possession or transportation that does not facilitate the prescribed use of the drug by the patient is inconsistent with the prescription and is unlawful.”
The case is People v. Carboni, 13 S.O.S. 21.
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