Doctor’s criminal charges provide 2 first impression issues

The Indiana Court of Appeals had to decide two issues of first impression Thursday in an appeal regarding charges of reckless homicide and issuing an invalid prescription for legend drugs by a practitioner against an Indianapolis doctor.

Dr. John Sturman has a subspecialty in pain management. He worked for a pain management clinic operated by Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis, but left in 2012 after the hospital suspended his medical privileges for not completing documentation and deviating from the standard of care.

An investigation by the Indiana Attorney General’s Office led to 19 criminal charges being filed against Sturman: counts 1-3 for reckless homicide and 4-19 for issuing an invalid prescription for legend drugs by a practitioner. The state alleges as a result of excessive prescriptions written by Sturman, three people died from drug overdoses or reactions.

The trial court ended up dismissing counts 8-10, 12, 14-16, 18 and 19 because the charges identified a range of dates during which invalid prescriptions were issued, some of which were beyond the statute of limitations. The trial court gave the state 20 days to amend the charges into a singular offense within the statute of limitations. Counts 1 and 11 were dismissed because they were beyond the statute of limitations; the judge dismissed the reckless homicide charges for failing to state an offense. The court also rejected Sturman’s claim that I.C. 16-42-19-20 is unconstitutionally vague.

This case raises two issues of first impression: when the statute of limitations period should be calculated for reckless homicide and whether the phrase “legitimate medical purpose,” which is not defined by statute, is unconstitutionally void for vagueness.

Sturman argued that the dates alleged by the state in which prescribed drugs leading to someone’s death should determine when the statute of limitations is calculated. The state countered that it is the person’s death that should be used. The appellate court sided with the state.

“While we agree with the trial court that the act of writing a prescription, by itself, is not a criminal offense, the charging Information in the present case clearly indicates that the alleged crime is that of reckless homicide,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote.

Sturman argued that Indiana Code 16-42 -19 -20 of the Indiana Legend Drug Act is unconstitutionally vague. The statute says a prescription for a legal drug is not valid unless it is issued for a “legitimate medical purpose” by a practitioner acting within the usual course of his or her business. He maintained that “legitimate medical purpose” fails to put a person of ordinary intelligence on notice as to what does or does not constitute a legitimate legal purpose.

“Ultimately, we find that the phrase ‘for a legitimate medical purpose’ is clearly intended to permit doctors, acting within the bounds of the standards of the medical field, to treat patients with diagnosed medical conditions,” Riley wrote. “At the same time, the statute is intended to prevent physicians from acting as common drug dealers by prescribing drugs to individuals with contraindications for controlled substances and without first examining the patient, establishing a diagnosis, formulating a treatment plan, and monitoring the effects of the prescribed medications.

“Because the statute plainly informs physicians that they must look to the accepted standards of care of the medical profession, we conclude that the statute provides sufficient notice of the prohibited conduct.”

The Court of Appeals reversed dismissal of the reckless homicide counts and affirmed the denial of Sturman’s motion to dismiss counts 1-6 and 4-19. The case, State of Indiana v. John K. Sturman, 49A02-1601-CR-8, is remanded for further proceedings.

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