Adding Insult to Injury


In 1988, when he was the police chief of Snohomish, Washington, Patrick Murphy came to the aid of a bus driver who was being assaulted by a passenger. The man smashed Murphy on the side of the head with the bus's radio, fracturing his jaw.

The broken joint still bothers him, despite two operations. Worse, the injury, combined with several others he suffered on and off the job during the next seven years, put an end to his two-decade career in law enforcement.

The problem wasn't that Murphy's injuries left him too disabled to work. It was that they made him look like a drug addict.

In October 1995, Murphy was charged with four counts of fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs. The felony charges were filed a week before voters decided whether to elect him sheriff of Snohomish County, a post to which he'd been appointed that year. He lost the election by a landslide.

Six months later, a state judge ruled that the prosecution had violated Murphy's right to privacy by obtaining his prescription records and medical information without a court order. The evidence was therefore inadmissible.

Although the judge also said that the state did not have much of a case anyway, many people probably had the impression that Murphy got off on a technicality. Now a Snohomish County jury has vindicated him again, concluding that he committed no crime and ordering the state to pay him and his family $2.8 million in damages.

Murphy believes local officials conspired against him for political reasons–a charge they've always denied and the jury rejected. Whether or not the prosecution was malicious, the case illustrates how overzealous enforcement of the drug laws can transform a patient into a criminal.

After his jaw injury, Murphy was referred to a series of doctors, culminating in an oral surgeon, a specialist in head and facial injuries, who prescribed the painkiller Percodan and the muscle relaxant Soma. Murphy had to use a pharmacy that accepted the state's medical coverage for job-related injuries, and he says he chose one outside his neighborhood to avoid gossip.

In November 1993, Murphy fell 22 feet from a ladder onto the concrete floor of his two-story garage, fracturing his skull, dislocating his shoulder, and breaking a thumb, a cheek bone, three vertebrae, and six ribs. An emergency room physician prescribed the painkiller Vicodin ES, and two family doctors (both in the same practice) later prescribed Percocet and M.S. Contin, a time-release form of morphine.

With Murphy laid up for four months, his family got his prescriptions filled at whatever pharmacy happened to be convenient. When he went back to work, he stopped taking Percocet and M.S. Contin but continued taking Percodan and Soma for the persistent pain from his jaw injury.

In April 1995, Murphy injured his knee while getting out of a helicopter. His family doctor was in the process of moving to new offices, and she told him to go to a walk-in clinic, where a physician's assistant prescribed the painkiller Darvocet.

A few weeks later, Murphy aggravated his shoulder injury while installing a sewer line, and his family doctor prescribed Percocet. Because Murphy was going away for the weekend, he filled the prescription at an out-of-town pharmacy. A suspicious druggist called the state Board of Pharmacy, triggering the investigation that led to felony charges against Murphy.

From the regulators' perspective, Murphy was clearly a junkie looking to get high. After all, he had obtained various narcotics at a bunch of different pharmacies with prescriptions from several doctors.

Murphy, who says he always kept the jaw specialist apprised of the additional drugs he was prescribed, could have explained the pattern of behavior that looked so sinister to the regulators. But he says they never asked for his side of the story.

As a result of his ordeal, Murphy wants to become "an advocate for intractable pain patients…who are having problems getting their medication," people who are "scrutinized, looked down upon, and mistreated" because the drugs they need are the focus of so much fear. C. Stratton Hill, a pain expert who testified for Murphy at the civil trial, called the verdict "a great victory" for such patients.

Bankrupted by legal expenses, Murphy and his wife can certainly use whatever damages the state ultimately pays them. But as he told the Seattle Times, "no amount of money replaces your reputation."