With the nation, state and county reeling from the ongoing opioid epidemic, a local circuit judge says he will no longer accept plea deals in cases against people accused of selling the powerful drugs that include heroin and fentanyl.
“I just keep hearing the stories from the detectives about overdose deaths,” Circuit Judge Howard Maltz said Wednesday morning seated behind the desk in his chambers.
“It’s become such a pervasive problem,” he added, pointing out that the stories, deaths and near-misses come from all over the county and cross socio-economic lines.
Maltz rattled off a few statistics — some of which are included in a memo from him about the decision, released Friday evening — about the number of deaths throughout the state caused by the powerful drugs.
For St. Johns County, the Sheriff’s Office has said there were 47 overdose deaths here in 2016, and by May of this year, there had already been 18.
In Florida in 2015, opioids — including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl — were determined to be responsible for 3,896 deaths, according to data from the state Medical Examiners Commission.
National numbers for 2015, which were provided by the Sheriff’s Office when they announced that deputies would begin carrying a drug, known as Narcan, that can reverse the effects of an overdose, showed that more than 20,000 people died in prescription opioid-overdose-related deaths. In the same year, nearly 13,000 people died of heroin overdose.
“One is too many,” Maltz said Wednesday.
“And that’s just deaths,” he added, noting that many are now saved by the deputies and county Fire Rescue personnel who all carry Narcan these days.
And with Gov. Rick Scott, and even President Donald Trump, having declared the epidemic a health emergency, as well as the state Legislature set to consider new laws to help with the problem, Maltz said it was time for him to do something as well.
“While the executive and legislative branches of our government have taken significant steps to address this crisis,” his memo says, “it is imperative the judicial branch also take certain steps to assure public confidence in addressing this crisis.”
Maltz said plea deals are an important part of the criminal justice system as they help many cases clear busy courtrooms, but because they often get made behind closed doors between the assistant state attorneys, defense teams and defendants, very little is ever learned about the circumstances of the alleged crimes.
“In the overwhelming majority, the judge goes along with it because he or she doesn’t know much about the case,” he said.
Refusing to accept a deal in the sale or manufacturing cases will force defendants either to go to trial or to enter an open plea to the court. If they opt for a trial, guilt or innocence will be decided by a jury. If they plead guilty in front of Maltz, each side will have the opportunity to argue mitigating and aggravating factors before he imposes sentence.
That shines a bit of light on the process, he explained.
“I think it is important there be full transparency of what happens in these cases,” he said.
“Because this issue is such a problem in our society today,” the memo says, “the public must have the confidence that the criminal justice system is doing its part to address this problem.”
His new rule, he said, will apply to any case involving the sale, delivery, manufacturing or trafficking of any opioid but there will be room for some exceptions, including for those who are cooperating with authorities as informants.
It also won’t apply to the addicts who find themselves caught up in the epidemic.
“This isn’t the users that I am addressing, this is the people that are dealing the stuff that I am addressing,” Maltz said.
For those who find themselves arrested and charged with crimes associated with their addiction, particularly non-violent crimes, Maltz said he is usually willing to accept an arrangement that allows the defendant to get help either in a rehabilitation facility or have the case transferred to drug court, where individuals can avoid harsh penalties by participating in the program that requires that they seek help and complete other requirements like community service.
“If it’s a simple possession we will try to get them help,” Maltz said.