When it comes to prosecuting physicians for unlawful prescribing of opioids or scheduled drugs, federal authorities have more stringent laws and sentencing guidelines. Recently a physician was arrested last year by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office and charges were not filed. However, just more than six months later federal charges were filed against the same physician.
On or about July 11, 2017, Christopher Owens, a physician licensed to practice in California, was indicted on charges relating to unlawfully prescribing oxycodone. Dr. Owens now lives in Indiana but previously practiced at UCSF. Dr. Owens is presumed innocent and charges in an Indictment are not evidence. The DEA is one of the investigating agencies and can also proceed administratively against the physician.
The Indictment alleges that over a three-year period between September of 2012 and June of 2015, Dr. Owens intended to act outside the course of usual professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose when he prescribed oxycodone on numerous occasions. In sum, Owens is charged with 36 counts of distributing oxycodone, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C). Each count of oxycodone prescription can carry a separate long sentence.
Dr. Owens was a well known vascular surgeon who had privileges at UCSF. He was placed on administrative leave back in June 2016 according to UCSF just a few days after his girlfriend passed away due to a drug related overdose. Later, UCSF reported that they revoked his privileges in October 2016.
Then in early November 2016, the San Francisco DA's Office filed 99 counts for distributing, prescribing or giving away controlled substances against Dr. Owens. The charges were dismissed and it seems there was a decision to allow the federal authorities to pursue the case.
These federal charges for prescribing or distributing oxycodone can be very serious with sentences up to 20 years and a mandatory minimum 10 year sentence. The mandatory minimum sentence can be negotiated with a plea agreement but when the government picks and chooses the prescription counts, these cases can be difficult to defend unless there was legitimate medical need for the prescription. It is usually a battle of the experts and a microscope is taken to the medical records and the patients' prior medical history.
In addition to the criminal case, the physician will also face the DEA and the Medical Boards of each state in which he is licensed. There can also be potential malpractice cases although each of the prescriptions are more than two years old. Publicity can bring out malpractice cases. Collateral consequences of this type of case is often as punishing as the potential prison time and fines.
Posted by Tracy Green, Esq.
Green and Associates, Attorneys at Law