Some Very Well-Placed People Are Questioning the Florida Law That Labled a Man a Drug Trafficker After an Accident Left Him Wheelchair-Bound and Addicted to Painkillers, Which He Purchased in Large Quantities.
TAMPA - For a man sentenced to 25 years in prison on drug trafficking charges, Richard Paey had a lot of powerful people on his side.
Prosecutors, a judge and some jurors didn't think the chronic pain patient from Hudson should go to prison at all.
So why, an associate appellate judge asked Tuesday, didn't authorities seek help rather than punishment for the wheelchair-bound man?
We did, the state said.
And Paey turned it down.
Now three 2nd District Court of Appeal judges are left to decide whether a case that has drawn the interest of chronic pain advocates worldwide and was featured on 60 Minutes last month should ever have gotten this far.
"I don't understand why nobody can take a step back and say this is wrong," Paey's wife, Linda said Tuesday.
At issue is a one-size-fits-all Florida law that labels anyone with more than an ounce of a controlled substance a drug trafficker, even if the person never deals.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration nabbed Paey after watching him buy more than 1,200 painkillers from different pharmacies between January and March 1997.
Undated prescriptions from his New Jersey doctor and a copy machine gave Paey the ability to fake numerous prescriptions, which he used to obtain 800 pills of a painkiller made with oxycodone.
Law enforcement figured he was selling the drugs, too, but never found any evidence.
Paey, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's law school, was frank about his use of pain medications.
He said he developed a physical dependence on painkillers after a bad car wreck, failed back surgeries and a multiple sclerois diagnosis. As his tolerance of the medications grew, so did his need for larger amounts to combat his pain.
Yet local doctors were skittish about writing his high-dosage prescriptions.
"Without medication," said Paey's attorney, John P. Flannery, "it is like his legs are on fire, unremitting pain."
Prosecutors in Pasco weren't gung-ho about trying Paey as a drug trafficker. They offered him house arrest and probation; he refused on principle. After a mistrial and an overturned conviction, a jury in 2004 found Paey guilty on 15 counts of trafficking in oxycodone, possessing hydrocodone and fraudulently obtaining prescriptions.
Again, the State Attorney's Office offered a deal in exchange for Paey giving up his appellate rights. When Paey said no, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Daniel Diskey grudgingly handed down the mandatory 25-year sentence.
Paey, now 47, sat Tuesday in the Tomoka Correctional Institute in Daytona Beach as his attorneys petitioned the appellate panel in Tampa to declare the convictions and prison sentence to be "cruel and unusual punishment."
"I think the judge followed a law that is unconstitutional," Flannery said. "The Legislature has usurped its power."
He accused Scott Andringa, the assistant state attorney who tried Paey's case, of being a "one-man prosecutorial misconduct machine."
Assistant Attorney General John Klawikofsky fired back, arguing that investigators found a "prescription factory" in Paey's home. Legislators hold the power to set sentencing guidelines, he said, and the courts should only intervene in grossly over-punished cases.
This case does not qualify, he said.
"The Legislature has drawn the line in the sand," Klawikofsky said, "and that line is 28 grams."
The judges, whose audience at the Stetson University College of Law's Tampa campus included TV and still cameras and a film crew from Europe, seemed loathe to take an activist role.
Presiding Chief Judge E.J. Salcines questioned the judiciary's right to change the trafficking statute, noting that lawmakers included both drug possession and selling. He asked whether clemency from the governor would be a more appropriate route than appellate relief.
Paey's supporters said at a morning news conference that excessive government scrutiny was the root of troubles for chronic pain patients.
"The pain patients have become more and more sort of presumptive criminals having to prove their innocence," said Siobhan Reynolds, president of the New York-based Pain Relief Network. "I don't think anybody ever thought that the war on drugs was going to mean a war on pain patients and their doctors."
No matter the intent of state law, Paey didn't help himself by rejecting plea offers, said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
"What was passed was to go after true drug traffickers," Fasano said. "There's a gentleman who really shouldn't be serving time, but he had a choice not to serve time."
Linda Paey, an ophthalmologist, said a morphine pump now provides her husband with more pain medication than he took outside prison.
"I pressured him to take the plea," she said, surrounded by the couple's three teenage children. "I would have taken it. But he couldn't.
"He wanted to but he can't."
Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.