TAMPA, Fla. - Supporters say Richard Paey was a wheelchair-bound man in constant, brutal pain who needed large amounts of prescription narcotics just to live a normal life. Prosecutors say he sought way too many of those often-abused painkillers and that makes him a criminal.
On Tuesday, as Paey's attorney tried to persuade the 2nd District Court of Appeal to throw out his 2004 drug trafficking convictions and mandatory 25-year sentence, advocates for chronic pain sufferers said the case illustrates flaws in the law and how people who are dependent on strong pain medication can get tangled up in the government's overzealous war on drugs.
"I don't think anybody ever thought the war on drugs was going to mean a war on pain patients and their doctors, but that is in fact what it has meant," said Siobhan Reynolds of the Pain Relief Network, an advocacy group that is helping with Paey's appeal.
Paey is a 47-year-old former attorney and father of three who suffered a serious back injury in a 1985 car accident and since has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was left in a wheelchair and constant agony.
Nothing blunted the pain -- he has described it as feeling like his legs were on fire -- except strong narcotics like Percocet and Vicodin, which he bought from pharmacies in numbers that got the attention of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and local authorities.
Prosecutors said he was forging prescriptions and getting so many pills that he had to be selling them, even though investigators' two-month surveillance turned up nothing and there was no other evidence supporting that claim. Paey said that because doctors in Florida were reluctant to prescribe medication in the amounts he required, he got his former doctor in New Jersey to send him undated prescriptions he could fill here.
The doctor testified at trial that he had never authorized the number of the pills Paey bought, even though other evidence contradicted him.
A jury convicted Paey of 15 counts of prescription forgery, unlawful possession of a controlled substance and drug trafficking. The judge imposed the minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years.
Paey's wife, Linda, said her husband was offered plea deals that would have kept him out of prison. But he rejected them because he didn't think he had done anything wrong and shouldn't have to live with the conviction and label of drug trafficker.
"I think they expected most of these drug-war type of victims to take a plea, and they were absolutely shocked that he wouldn't take it," she said. "He thought he was going to win."
On Tuesday, his attorney, John P. Flannery, told the three-judge appellate panel that the 25-year mandatory sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. Further, Flannery said, the doctor lied on the witness stand and the prosecutor knew it.
Flannery told the judges that Paey is now getting pain relief in prison, via a morphine drip.
"It's amazing to me that the Florida prison understands what the Florida prosecutor does not," he said.
Assistant Attorney General John W. Klawikofsky defended the conviction and sentence, saying that the evidence seized from Paey's house amounted to "a little prescription factory."
The law, he said, dictates that someone who has a large number of pills is considered to be trafficking, even if there is no evidence of sale.
Paey at one point got 800 pills containing oxycodone in 1 1/2 months, when just 100 would have been enough to charge him with trafficking, Klawikofsky said.
He noted that Paey was offered plea deals, and that the minimum mandatory sentence he eventually received was dictated by Florida Legislature.
Linda Paey said she hopes the appeal and national attention that included a segment on the "60 Minutes" TV show last month will help.
"I'm hoping that the judges here can act with courage and right this terrible wrong and help me get my family back together again," she said.
The appeals court did not indicate when it would rule.
For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.