Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh took a hard line against nurses who abuse drugs. Unlike other professionals such as lawyers or teachers treatment instead of a criminal record was out of the question.
Her office's tough stance wound its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, where last week the justices effectively shot down the policy.
In a unanimous ruling hailed by addiction-care advocates, the justices sided with a nurse who had argued that prosecutors wrongly interpreted state law by trying to block her and others from having her drug conviction erased through a successful rehabilitation program.
In an opinion written by Justice Maureen O'Connor, a former Summit County prosecutor and judge, the court ruled that nurses do not occupy a position of trust that would make them ineligible for treatment in lieu of a conviction.
Walsh's office has consistently opposed medical professionals who try to use the state law that in some instances allows individuals to obtain treatment that could lead to their low-level felony record being expunged, said Chief Counsel Mary Ann Kovach.
She said the policy was designed to protect patients who might be deprived of pain medication and employers who would be deprived access to a job candidate's conviction record.
''These are people who cannot protect themselves,'' Kovach said. ''That's our big concern. Your babies, your children, that need meds, and your elderly. Cancer patients are a huge group that could be affected by an individual who's taking their morphine. We're very concerned to that extent.''
The case settled last week involved Akron-area nurse Sally Massien, who was convicted of stealing morphine from a Summa Health System pharmacy. A county judge granted Massien, 54, treatment in lieu of her conviction.
Walsh's office appealed Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer's decision to a state appellate court and ultimately the Ohio Supreme Court. Walsh contended that nurses are in a position of trust and are therefore ineligible under Ohio law to take advantage of the treatment statute.
Akron attorney Karen Brouse, who argued the Supreme Court case, said Massien completed her treatment ''with flying colors'' and has returned to work as a nurse. She said Walsh's policy went too far, primarily aiming it at nurses,
while protections for patients through the state licensing board are already enforced.
''I don't understand why we're targeting nurses,'' Brouse said. ''We're not singling out lawyers, teachers or bus drivers. Anyone who wants drugs in this country can get them.''
Jack Stem, a former nurse and a recovering addict who runs Addiction Prevention Education Consulting Services in Cincinnati, said drug-abuse cases are one of the top causes of disciplinary action by state nursing and medical boards.
But, he said, the stance taken by Walsh only reduces the likelihood for medical professionals to seek help, because their job and freedom become jeopardized. Further, he said, the prosecutor's policy is misplaced, because stringent record-keeping and monitoring guidelines are already enforced by the state medical and nursing boards.
''I think, as general stance, the prosecutor's position is totally inappropriate,'' Stem said. ''Rather than looking at a disease that can lead to criminal behavior, we're just flushing them all down the toilet.
''I think the first time through, if a nurse knows that this will lead to prosecution, a criminal record and possibly jail, she's not going to say anything. So it just allows the disease to progress, which puts the patient at risk.''
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.