Arrests at North Carolina Methadone Clinic Raise Ethical, Legal Alarms

May 21, 2024

On a pleasant summer’s morning in North Carolina, a law enforcement officer was searching for a woman who had missed a probation appointment.

Emma*, 41, had been placed on an 18-month probation term in a July 2022 judgment for illegally possessing a Schedule II drug. In 2023, she began receiving treatment at Jacksonville Treatment Center, where services include counseling and provision of methadone and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder.

Probation Officer Carter was hot on Emma’s heels. Early on August 16, 2023, according to Onslow County Superior Court filings reviewed by Filter, he waited outside her house in Hubert, a suburb to the east of Jacksonville, until she left home that morning. Then, the officer followed her to the clinic.

Carter was alone, and was not supposed to “engage” Emma by himself. So after he observed her enter the facility, he called for back-up from the local police. Officer Kent, of Jacksonville Police Department, soon arrived to provide assistance, according to testimony Kent filed to the court.

The two officers entered the center, where they were promptly told to leave by its director, Jeffrey Jones.

Jones was concerned that the presence of the police could cause anxiety among patients—over 200 people visit on some days—and that, in any case, medical confidentiality laws prevented him from revealing whether any specific person was present at the center.

“[Jones] immediately asked all officers to step outside,” recounted Kent.

Lieutenant Porter entered the building, and soon reemerged with Jones in handcuffs.

The officers eventually acquiesced, while claiming that the confidentiality laws did not apply to them and threatening to go “room to room” searching the treatment center, Jones’s attorney, Nathan Sweet, wrote to the court.

Shortly afterwards, at the request of the officers present, a more senior officer arrived. Lieutenant Porter entered the building, and soon reemerged with Jones in handcuffs.

Emma came out with a staff member soon after, and she too was arrested and handcuffed. 

Jones was immediately released from custody. But while Emma was being held, “She began coughing and asking for a drink stating her mouth was dry and that something was stuck in her throat,” Kent wrote. “It appeared to me that she possibly just consumed something but I was unable to verify it nor further investigate it.”

Emma was taken to Onslow County Jail, where she allegedly began slurring her words and falling asleep. A nurse advised that she should be taken to the local hospital. At Onslow Memorial Hospital, a small quantity of what police said was methamphetamine was confiscated from her.

After several hours, she was released from the hospital and an officer returned her to the jail. There, she was charged with a probation violation, drug possession and possession of a controlled substance on prison premises. She had failed to attend a probation meeting on July 12, 2023, according to police documents filed to court.

Police claimed that despite Jones’s protestations, legal protections for substance use disorder patients’ sensitive health information did not apply.

Two days later, police visited the treatment center again. This time, Detective Carr and Sergeant Keller arrested Jones for harboring a fugitive and resisting an officer.

They claimed that despite Jones’s protestations, protections for substance use disorder (SUD) patients’ sensitive health information, as enshrined by SAMHSA’s 42 CFR Part 2 regulation, did not apply. Instead, the police pointed to the separate Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

“Sgt. Keller informed Jones that HIPPAA [sic] did not apply to his situation because law enforcement were not asking for medical information,” a police case report provided to the court said. It added that HIPAA does not apply if there is a court-issued arrest warrant, though Jones said he never referred to HIPAA.

Legal experts say the Part 2 regulations are supreme, and that these, despite being weakened in 2020, demand “unconditional compliance” to maintain confidentiality in the absence of a specific court order.

Authorities are now pursuing a criminal conviction against Jones. His attorney maintains that the charges and prosecution are in violation of both state and federal law; that the probation and police officers did not have the legal right to enter the treatment center; and that disclosing a patient is physically present at an SUD clinic would be tantamount to revealing medical information.

Jones “acted in the manner that we would hope all SUD treatment program officials would.”

“There seems to be some confusion that an arrest warrant or an individual being on probation gives the right to law enforcement to search and effectuate an arrest on private premises not listed in any warrant or court order,” Sweet wrote to the Onslow District Attorney’s Office on April 16, in a motion to have the charges dismissed. “All the agencies in this case have been put on ample notice since this case was charged that this prosecution is a violation of my client’s rights.”

Gerald DeLoss, chief legal officer at the Illinois Association for Behavioral Health, told Filter that Jones “acted in the manner that we would hope all SUD treatment program officials would,” in order to protect the sanctity of the provider-patient relationship, rather than scaring people away, and “all in a legally compliant manner.”

“Law enforcement entering a substance use disorder treatment facility to arrest patients was precisely what [42 CFR Part 2] was promulgated to protect against,” DeLoss added.

“Congress originally passed the privacy law that underlies the SUD privacy regulations at 42 CFR Part 2 for addiction treatment records following a widely publicized case in New York City in the 1970s, where the police asked an opioid treatment program for a list of Black, male patients during a criminal investigation,” Jacqueline Seitz, deputy director of health privacy at the Legal Action Center, told Filter. “It is an important public health issue that people can seek care without being targeted for arrest, investigation, or punishment.”

“The lieutenant told me, ‘I know exactly what you guys do here.’”

Jones maintains that divulging the presence of any patient at his facility would equate to revealing their medical details.

“I tried to explain the law to the lieutenant,” Jones told Filter. “He said, ‘I have gone into a tattoo shop and arrested someone in the middle of a tattoo.’ I replied, ‘We are not a tattoo shop,’ and the lieutenant told me, ‘I know exactly what you guys do here.’”

“If I went and got a patient and gave them to the police, our patients wouldn’t come back,” Jones added.

He also alleged that the incident, and his subsequent arrest, are part of a campaign of police harassment against the center that has seen regular drive-throughs by officers who claim to be merely using the parking lot to turn around.

“We are an SUD facility that falls under 42 CFR Part 2, a federal law, but they can’t seem to wrap their head around it,” Jones said.

According to Seitz, other SUD treatment and harm reduction services have been subject to recent police surveillance—including suspected undercover officers enrolling in programs, and police parking near the entrance, for hours at a time, “doing paperwork.”

“This type of police surveillance really undermines individuals’ ability to safely access the continuum of services, and jeopardizes individuals’ health and recovery,” she said.

The “victim” of the fresh drug “offense” that Emma was charged with was “society.”

On the letterhead of the reporting officer narrative form filled by Kent, it says that the “victim” of the fresh “drug offense” that Emma was later charged with was “society.” Drug policy reform advocates are likely to see that as a symbol of an enduring, disastrous war.

 

 

“In spite of more than 50 years of the ongoing War on Drugs and the trillions of dollars spent, its draconian policies have ultimately proven to be a failure,” Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), former executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), told Filter. “The ramifications of prohibition have turned lives upside down and created a largely unnecessary burden for law enforcement, resulting in a waste of valuable time and resources.” 

Ending the drug war would “reduce incarceration, allow police to focus on violent crime, increase drug prevention and harm reduction services, and keep people who use drugs out of a criminal justice system that does nothing to help them live healthier, safer lives,” Franklin added.

Jacksonville Police Department told Filter that the case was still an active and ongoing investigation, and that it would not be appropriate to comment.

Jones awaits notice of whether he will be taken to trial, after attending court for administrative purposes, or if the charges will be dropped. 

 


 

Top photograph by Oregon Department of Transportation via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

*Emma is a pseudonym, to protect her identity.

LEAP was formerly the fiscal sponsor of The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter.

 

Mattha Busby

Mattha is a freelance journalist and author who covers drug policy, health and life. He has interviewed the family of Mexican mushroom healer Maria Sabina, biohackers injecting stem cells into their bodies, politicians in the village that banned Coca-Cola, and people who spend time in prolonged darkness meditations. He is based in Vancouver, Canada.

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