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July 22, 2005 - Drug War Chronicle (US Web)

Coerced Treatment: Pennsylvania Legal Challenge Threatens Drug Courts, Judge

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An appeal filed by a Pennsylvania woman could have national repercussions on the way drug courts work, according to Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Louis Presenza. In an interview last week with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Judge Presenza warned that an adverse decision in the case would "affect programs across the commonwealth, maybe even across the country."

The woman in question, Sheryl Ann Fletcher, is demanding the same rights and privileges according to other people facing the loss of their liberty at the hands of the courts. Fletcher was arrested on burglary and theft charges related to her use of methamphetamine and agreed to be diverted into the Chester County Drug Court. That program is available to nonviolent offenders who agree to follow a treatment program and lasts one to two years, after which participants' records are cleared.

On June 29, Chester County Court Judge William P. Mahon, who oversees the drug court, jailed her for testing positive for methamphetamine, her third violation of drug court rules. But Fletcher's attorneys, Richard Breuer and S. Lee Ruslander II, sought and won a stay of the jail term from Superior Court, and Fletcher was released two days later. Fletcher and her attorneys made a due process claim, arguing that she did not receive advance written notice of the violation, proof of the alleged drug test results, or the chance to cross-examine witnesses.

While Fletcher's attorneys declined to talk to the Inquirer, the newspaper noted they had previously said they did not believe people relinquished all their rights just because they had entered a voluntary program.

But Judge Presenza told the newspaper the "core principles" of drug courts, especially the resort to immediate sanctions such as imprisonment, would be endangered if Fletcher prevailed. "Then, what have you won?" he asked.

Offenders agree to drug court for "ulterior motives," Presenza said. "They want to stay out of jail or beat their case. They don't come in and say, 'I've got a problem; I must address it.'"

If Fletcher won her rights, worried Presenza, next thing you know everybody will be demanding them. "Word spreads quickly," Presenza said. "Every client will be appealing if they think they can avoid jail; the programs could not survive."

Drug court judges don't like their clients challenging the rules. When Fletcher showed up for her next drug court session on July 6, Judge Mahon threw her out of the program, saying she had signed up for rehabilitation, not litigation.

Her attorneys filed a second appeal the next day to have her reinstated. That appeal was granted the following day, pending review.

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