Recently, a West Virginia doctor was sentenced to six months in prison by a federal judge after her criminal conviction for prescribing medication as part of a pill mill. Diane Shafer is considered to have been the tenth-most prolific prescriber of controlled substances during the time period observed by prosecutors. In total, she wrote 118,000 prescriptions between 2003 and 2010.
Shafer’s rate of doling out prescriptions allegedly surpassed the rate of many hospitals. She allegedly even left signed prescription slips for her office staff to hand out in her absence. Most of the prescriptions were for pain and anti-anxiety medication. Those who wanted prescriptions would form long lines on the sidewalk outside of her office. Shafer is said to have charged $150 to $200 for initial consultations and $75 for follow-up visits.
It is unknown what specifically motivated Shafer, who had worked as an orthopedic surgeon in Williamson for 10 years. Shafer was the sole orthopedic surgeon serving a 10-county area, and her supporters claim that in trying to meet the needs of all of her patients, Shafer suffered an administrative lapse. However, Shafer has had trouble with the law before. In 1993, she was involved in an ethics probe in Kentucky that was dismissed after she married the official presiding over the charges.
Shafer’s six-month sentence falls within the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The Sentencing Guidelines determine the sentence based on the “level” of the offense, the convicted criminal’s prior history, and which “zone” the crime falls into. The Sentencing Guidelines were meant to produce fairer and more consistent criminal convictions from judge to judge, but frequently result in confusion instead. For many years, federal judges were required to issue sentences based on the Sentencing Guidelines; however, after the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, the Sentencing Guidelines became advisory instead. Even so, the Sentencing Guidelines continue to hold a lot of sway in the federal court system.
As part of her plea bargain, Shafer has promised to never reapply for a Drug Enforcement Administration registration; she surrended the one previously issued by the DEA. Her medical license expired in 2009.
We at the Wolfe Law Firm have previously discussed West Virginia’s serious drug problem. In addition to pill mills, the state also has a high level of methamphetamine use. Any effort by state and federal officials to shut down pill mills and otherwise address the problem is welcome.
At the same time, one should not be so quick to think the worst of those who were charged with being part of a drug operation. First, in our system, every person accused or suspected of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Each criminal suspect in this state is entitled to representation by a West Virginia criminal defense attorney under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. For a defendent to be convicted, the prosecutor must provide enough evidence that a jury would find him or her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the highest standard of proof possible — higher than “clear and convincing evidence” required in a civil case. Second, no one really knows what motivates certain people to commit drug-related crimes. Until we do, it is better to just withhold judgment and let the facts be sorted out during the criminal case.