Judge’s Ruling Could Affect Patient Brokering Cases

Patient brokering at drug treatment centers has become an ongoing issue in the state of Florida. Investigations led by several news outlets have uncovered the real crooked nature of these centers such as the practices at Whole Life Recovery. This has led to numerous legislative attempts to deter large patient-brokering operations, which is a type of healthcare fraud.

Many treatment centers hire “body brokers,” which are people who are paid to look for addicts. These “junkie hunters” are compensated for referring potential patients to their treatment centers. Once the center has admitted the unaware addict, they can then charge their insurance company outrageous rates. Some have even reported drug tests ordered by treatment centers to cost $5,600.

In 2018, State Attorney David Aronberg responded to this issue with the Florida Patient Brokering Act. The new legislation has led to numerous arrests and convictions, which caused a number of drug treatment centers to close their doors.

Since Aronberg’s act, numerous notable drug treatment centers have been linked to patient brokering. Additionally, the act may have also led to a decline in fatal drug overdoses. Aronberg recently presented data from the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner. The data demonstrated a decrease in fatal drug overdoses from 2017 to 2018. The report states the number of opioid-related deaths in Palm Beach had dropped from 588 in 2017 to 326 in 2018.

While the operation has been successful, it comes with some challenges. Some offenders have argued they were unaware of Florida’s patient brokering laws because they’re so new. Others state they were given bad counsel from attorneys when setting up their drug treatment centers. However, the current statute does not list ignorance of the law as an admissible defense. Now, a new ruling by Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Laura Johnson may drastically change David Aronberg’s plans.


What Does the Ruling Mean

Johnson’s ruling is for the current case State of Florida vs. James Francis Kigar. The case surrounds a Boynton Beach treatment center operated by Kigar called Whole Life Recovery. Over the last two years, law enforcement officials in Palm Beach County have been investigating allegations of fraud, money laundering, kickbacks and patient brokering related to the center.

Kigar is now facing a total of 95 counts linked to patient brokering and other relevant crimes. He has pleaded not guilty by stating he was unaware of Florida’s patient brokering laws. Kigar claims he was wrongly informed by his attorney to pay kickbacks for referrals. Judge Laura Johnson responded to this case with a controversial ruling.

Johnson stated in a six-page order that, “A defendant may assert the advice of counsel defense when charged with violations of the Florida Patient Brokering statute.” She also ruled the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant was aware their actions were illegal.

Judge Johnson’s ruling is based on a legal term called “mens rea,” which states a person must know what they’re doing is wrong to be charged with a crime. The ruling basically states the defendant must have intended to commit a crime. This is controversial because the issue of intent isn’t included in the current Florida Patient Brokering Act.

Judge Johnson’s new standard could undo many prosecutions sought under David Aronberg. A defendant could escape criminal charges if they’re able to prove the crime was unintentional. The ruling may also drastically change the path of Kigar’s case, which was looking grim beforehand.

The Impact of Judge Johnson’s Ruling

Johnson’s ruling could tremendously affect David Aronberg’s Sober Homes Task Force. It may lead to a number of appeals and dismissals for previous patient brokering cases in the Palm Beach area. In addition, it may establish a new standard in how the State Attorney can prosecute future kickback cases involving drug treatment centers.

Assistant State Attorney Justin Chapman plans to ask Judge Johnson to reconsider her decision. If she denies the request, Chapman may file an appeal with the Fourth District Court. However, there’s been no word of that from the State Attorney’s Office.

Many are hoping the appellate court will untangle Johnson’s ruling to decide the fate of future patient-brokering cases. If Judge Johnson retains her ruling, prosecutors will have a much harder time convicting a person of patient brokering. People who have taken bad advice or were unaware of Florida’s patient-brokering laws will not be legally punished for the crime.
This blog was last updated on March 6th, 2019.

Florida May Pass Stricter Distracted Driving Laws

Cellphones and other electronic devices have become a staple in our daily lives. The majority of the time these instruments help us navigate the world around us. However, many people use their electronic devices recklessly while they’re driving. This has become a dangerous growing trend for the state of Florida. The Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) reported that there were 50,190 accidents related to distracted driving in 2017.

Florida lawmakers are hoping to pass a new bill for tougher distracted driving laws. Current legislation does have a texting-while-driving ban implemented under Section 316.305 of the Florida Statutes. The law itself is controversial though and has been accused of being toothless. This is because Florida is one of only four states that doesn’t allow police officers to pull someone over for looking at their electronic device.

In 2018, a similar bill was sponsored but died while in the Senate. Some representatives believe the reason for this was because the bill wasn’t very clear. It instead focused on making texting while driving a primary offense. The 2018 bill did nothing to address other distracted driving actions such as talking on the phone or perusing social media.

Now, lawmakers are attempting to pass a new proposal to toughen up distracted driving laws. House Bill 112 (HB 112) provides a lot more clarity. The bill addresses all types of distracted driving, not just texting. Some of these include speaking into an electronic device, e-mailing, instant messaging, or reading with your electronic device. If the bill passes, then distracted driving laws in Florida will be significantly stronger. This means more traffic violations for Florida residents and possible charges for multiple offenses.


What Does the Bill Say?

House Bill 112 amends and adds new provisions to Section 316.305 of Florida’s Statutes. The section would be renamed from “Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law” to “Florida Ban on Wireless Communication Devices While Driving Law.” The purpose of this is to incorporate all distracted driving devices such as electronic watches or tablets.

If HB 112 is approved, then you wouldn’t be allowed to use a wireless communication device at all. Even speaking into the device could result in a nonmoving violation. The only acceptable way to utilize your wireless communication device under HB 112 is if it’s in “hands-free” mode. Basically, if you’re holding your wireless communication device you could receive a nonmoving violation.

The bill is very similar to legislation active in California. Both Senate Bill 1213 and Senate Bill 28 were enacted into law in July 2008, so the legislation has been in effect for nearly ten years. While distracted driving has declined, the problem unfortunately still exists. A press release by the California Highway Patrol stated there were 97,000 citations issued for distracted driving in 2017. Data also indicates 22,000 drivers were involved in distracted driving collisions that year.


The Problem with HB 112

Distracted drivers cause serious injuries and sometimes fatalities every year. Florida lawmakers have decided to respond to this issue with stringent legislation. On the surface, this bill seems to be a good idea, but it could also impose an influx of unnecessary citations on Floridians.

If HB 112 passes into law, then police officers could pull you over for simply picking up your phone. The implementation of this law may leave many Florida residents with traffic tickets. People with multiple violations could have issues with their insurance or simply be unable to pay the full cost of the ticket.

What’s even more unsettling is the ineffectiveness of hands-free mode. The National Safety Council argues using a hands-free device requires the same amount of brain processing power as texting and driving. Both activities require the driver to split their attention, meaning you’re just as likely to get into an accident talking on hands-free than if you’re sending an electronic message.

If this is true, then HB 112 doesn’t solve the problem of distracted driving by allowing hands-free. Instead, our legislation would be imposing a law that doesn’t lessen distracted drivers and requires officers to waste time issuing unneeded tickets.

It’s important we keep Florida roads safe. However, it’s just as imperative we implement thoughtful legislation that attacks every avenue of the problem. We’re still unsure of the fate of HB 112 and it’s possible amendments. Hopefully, Florida lawmakers will alter the bill so it can effectively tackle the issue of distracted driving.
This blog was last updated on March 6th, 2019. 

Decriminalization of Marijuana Budding in West Palm Beach

All forms of marijuana are illegal in Florida under state and federal law, but starting in the summer of 2015, a handful of South Florida cities and counties acted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, making possession a civil — instead of a criminal — offense.

Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most populous county with 2.7 million residents, was the first Florida municipality to decriminalize possession of small amounts (defined as 20 grams or less) of marijuana, followed by the cities of Miami Beach and Key West.

Hallandale Beach, a city of about 40,000 residents in Broward County that shares a border with Miami-Dade, was the first city in its county to approve decriminalization and was followed by West Palm Beach, the largest city in Palm Beach County with about 100,000 residents.

Both Palm Beach County and Broward County (with about 3.25 million residents combined) are poised to join this growing list before the end of 2015 after preliminary approval of decriminalization. Several other Florida jurisdictions are considering similar measures.

In West Palm Beach, the new law (Ordinance No. 4590-15) would give law enforcement officers the option of issuing citations to people in possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana (or possession of drug paraphernalia), which imposes a fine of $100 with no arrest, no jail time, no court appearance, and no permanent criminal record — a civil penalty akin to a traffic ticket.

The police have wide discretion under the new laws, but a person suspected of a felony, driving while impaired, a violent crime, domestic violence, or a person with an unpaid citation won’t catch a break under the new law, and will most likely be arrested on a misdemeanor for possession.

Under state law, a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana up to 20 grams may result in up to 12 months one year in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. Possession of more than 20 grams is a felony in Florida, with penalties of up to five years imprisonment, a $5,000 fine, or both (Florida Statutes 775.082 and 776.083).

Issuing citations instead of making arrests for marijuana possession frees law enforcement to concentrate on serious crimes and helps to unclog court dockets, advocates for the reforms say.

Attorney for Marijuana Possession Charges in West Palm Beach

If you have been arrested or received a citation for possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach or Broward counties, or anywhere in South Florida, you should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who is familiar with the local laws to discuss your options and help you make the right decision in your case.

Shift in Attitudes

As national attitudes toward marijuana use evolve and more states, counties, and cities enact laws to decriminalize marijuana, fewer people will face arrest and the consequences of a criminal record, which may adversely affect education and employment opportunities in their future. Some people with a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana have experienced difficulty in obtaining a loan or finding a place to live.

About half of the states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for varying degrees of medical use. The states of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have legalized the possession of small amounts of weed for recreational use, as has the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

A national survey by the Pew Research Center in March 2015 found that 53 percent of respondents said marijuana should be legal (both recreationally and medically), while 44 percent said it should remain illegal. The survey also found that 76 percent said there should be no jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana, while 22 percent favored jail time. Forty-nine percent said they tried marijuana at least once, while 51 percent said they had not.

A Palm Beach Post editorial in July 2015 called the ongoing policy shift toward greater acknowledgement of marijuana use by authorities a “wave of sanity.”

Conflicting Laws

Many legal issues arise with the adoption of these new laws that downgrade marijuana possession from a criminal offense to a civil infraction.

Cities within a county may also opt out if the county adopts decriminalization, meaning that the law on one side of a Florida street may be different than the law in another municipality just across the road, creating a patchwork of laws.

Will state agencies, such as the Florida Highway Patrol, apply state law instead of the local law during a traffic stop in a city that has decriminalized possession of 20 grams or less?

And of course, the law is blind to the “black market” — not everyone grows their own pot; marijuana originated from somewhere and was delivered to an individual somehow. The sale of 20 grams of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor and the sale of more than 20 grams of marijuana is a felony under state law.

West Palm Beach Ordinance No. 4590-15

On Sept. 13, 2015, the West Palm Beach City Commission unanimously approved Ordinance No. 4590-15 after granting preliminary approval two weeks earlier. The exact text of the new law is reprinted below from pages 11-12 of the minutes of the commission meeting:

Public Hearing and Second Reading of Ordinance No. 4590-15 (APPROVED) amending Chapter 54 of the Code of Ordinances of the City of West Palm Beach to provide civil penalties for the possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis and for possession of drug paraphernalia.

AN ORDINANCE OF THE CITY COMMISSION OF THE CITY OF WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA, AMENDING THE CODE OF ORDINANCES AT CHAPTER 54 (OFFENSES) ARTICLE I, (IN GENERAL) SECTION 54-1 (ADOPTION OF STATE LAWS RELATING TO MISDEMEANORS), PROVIDE CIVIL PENALTIES FOR THE POSSESSION OF 20 GRAMS OR LESS OF CANNABIS (MARIJUANA) AND POSSESSION OF DRUG PARAPHERNALIA; SETTING FORTH PENALTIES AND ENFORCEMENT RESPONSIBILITES; PROVIDING A CONFLICTS CLAUSE, A CODIFICATION CLAUSE AND A SEVERABILITY CLAUSE; PROVIDING AN EFFECTIVE DATE; AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES. Agenda Cover Memorandum No.: 20534 (attached).

Staff Recommended Motion: Approve Ordinance No. 4590-15.

Background: The American Civil Liberties Union reports that when people are arrested for possessing miniscule amounts of marijuana that may have dire collateral consequences that affect their eligibility for public housing and student financial aid, employment opportunities, child custody determinations and immigration status.

Further, the Federal Bureau of Investigation/Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data regarding misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests indicates that in 2010, 77 (percent) of marijuana arrests were of people 29 or younger, 62 (percent) were of people younger than 25, and more than one-third were of teenagers and pre-teens.

Currently, City of West Palm Beach law enforcement officers may either arrest or not arrest a person for the commission of a misdemeanor. This Ordinance will provide an alternative and additional mechanism under the City’s Code to enforce violations that are based upon the commission of certain enumerated misdemeanors.

Law enforcement officers may: (1) issue a civil citation pursuant to this ordinance; (2) arrest; or (3) not arrest a person for the commission of a misdemeanor offense of possession of marijuana and/or possession of drug paraphernalia.

Fiscal Note: No fiscal impact to budget.

West Palm Beach’s marijuana decriminalization law is similar to the others enacted in Florida in 2015, but it is indicative of the change in attitudes about marijuana that the ordinance received widespread support, even from law enforcement.

Find an Attorney for Marijuana Possession in Broward & Palm Beach counties

If you have been arrested or received a citation for possession of marijuana anywhere in South Florida, including Broward County, Florida or Palm Beach County, Florida, contact a local criminal defense attorney at Meltzer & Bell, P.A.. The attorneys at Meltzer & Bell, P.A. have more than two decades of experience defending clients on criminal charges.

Lawrence Meltzer and Steven Bell are qualified lawyers who know the nuances of the local laws and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call Meltzer & Bell, P.A. at (954) 716-8538 to set up a free consultation.