Pill Sham

A man seeking pain relief gets 25 years for drug trafficking

Here's a bit of legal information that may interest Rush Limbaugh: Under Florida law, illegally obtaining more than 28 grams of painkillers containing the narcotic oxycodone—a threshold exceeded by a single 60-pill Percocet prescription—automatically makes you the worst sort of drug trafficker, even if you never sold a single pill. Even if, like Richard Paey, you were using the drugs to relieve severe chronic pain.

Although prosecutors admitted Paey was not a drug trafficker, on April 16 he received a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years for drug trafficking. That jaw-dropping outcome illustrates two sadly familiar side effects of the war on drugs: the injustice caused by mandatory minimum sentences and the suffering caused by the government's interference with pain treatment.

Paey, a 45-year-old father of three, is disabled as a result of a 1985 car accident, failed back surgery, and multiple sclerosis. Today, as he sits in jail in his wheelchair, a subdermal pump delivers a steady, programmed dose of morphine to his spine. But for years he treated his pain with Percocet, Lortab (a painkiller containing the narcotic hydrocodone), and Valium prescribed by his doctor in New Jersey, Steven Nurkiewicz.

When Paey and his family moved to Florida in 1994, he had trouble finding a new doctor. Because he had developed tolerance to the pain medication, he needed high doses, and because he was not on the verge of death, he needed them indefinitely. As many people who suffer from chronic pain can testify, both of those factors make doctors nervous, since they know the government is looking over their shoulders while they write prescriptions.

Unable to find a local physician who was comfortable taking him on as a patient, Paey used undated prescription forms from Nurkiewicz's office to obtain painkillers in Florida. Paey says Nurkiewicz authorized these prescriptions, which the doctor (who could face legal trouble of his own) denies.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office began investigating Paey in late 1996 after receiving calls from suspicious pharmacists. Detectives tracked Paey as he filled prescriptions for 1,200 pills from January 1997 until his arrest that March.

At first investigators assumed Paey must be selling the pills, since they thought the amounts were too large for him to consume on his own. But the police never found any evidence of that, and two years after his arrest prosecutors offered him a deal: If he pleaded guilty to attempted trafficking, he would receive eight years of probation, including three years of house arrest.

Paey initially agreed but then had second thoughts. His wife, Linda, says he worried that he could go to prison if he was accused of violating his probation. More fundamentally, he did not want to identify himself as a criminal when he believed he had done nothing wrong. He has since turned down other plea deals involving prison time.

Meanwhile, prosecutors have pursued Paey in three trials. The first ended in a mistrial; the second resulted in a conviction that the judge threw out because of a procedural error; and the third, which ended last month, produced guilty verdicts on 15 charges of drug trafficking, obtaining a controlled substance by fraud, and possession of a controlled substance.

A juror later told the St. Petersburg Times he did not really think Paey was guilty of trafficking, since the prosecution made it clear from the outset that he didn't sell any pills. The juror said he voted guilty to avoid being the lone holdout. He suggested that other jurors might have voted differently if the foreman had not assured them Paey would get probation.

The prosecutors, who finally obtained the draconian sentence that even they concede Paey does not deserve, say it's his fault for insisting on his innocence. "It's unfortunate that anyone has to go to prison, but he's got no one to blame but Richard Paey," Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis told the St. Petersburg Times. "All we wanted to do was get him help."

Paey's real crime, it seems, is not drug trafficking but ingratitude. "My husband was so adamant, and so strongly defending this from the very beginning, that it might have annoyed them," says Linda Paey. "They were extremely upset that he would not accept a plea bargain. They felt that anyone who had any common sense would....But he didn't want to say he was guilty of something he didn't do."

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