Justices side with doctors convicted in pain pill schemes

Court Watch

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled for doctors who face criminal charges for overprescribing powerful pain medication in a case arising from the opioid addiction crisis.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court that prosecutors must prove that doctors knew they were illegally prescribing powerful pain drugs in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The ruling came as the U.S. has been seeing record numbers of drug overdose deaths, many from the highly lethal opioid fentanyl.

Evaluating the convictions of two doctors who are each facing more than two decades in prison, the justices ruled on a subject on which advocates for patients and doctors had urged the court to distinguish between criminal behavior and medical errors made in good faith.

It did so in the ruling. Prosecutors, Breyer wrote, “must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner.” The justices ruled unanimously for the doctors, though only six endorsed Breyer’s standard for conviction.

Fear of aggressive prosecution already has led doctors to avoid prescribing opioids “against their best medical judgment,” the National Pain Advocacy Center told the court in a written filing.

But the justices did not throw out the convictions of two doctors whose appeal was heard in February. Instead, it ordered federal appeals courts to take a new look at their cases.

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