Felony Doctor Shopping Charges in Pinellas County, Florida
Concealing / Withholding Information from a Doctor
What is the Doctor Shopping Law in Florida and How is it Committed?
Florida Statute ss. 893.13(7)(a)8 is the doctor shopping law that makes it a felony offense “to withhold information from a practitioner from whom the person seeks to obtain a controlled substance or a prescription for a controlled substance when the person making the request has received a controlled substance or a prescription for a controlled substance of like therapeutic use from another practitioner within the previous 30 days.” A violation of the Florida Doctor Shopping statute is typically charged when a patient has visited more than one doctor or emergency room within a short period of time in an effort to acquire multiple prescriptions for the same illness or medical problem. To obtain multiple prescriptions, these patients often attempt the following:
- Making an appointment with two different doctors within a short period of time and obtaining the same or a similar prescription for the same ailment;
- Deliberately injuring themselves before their visit to the additional doctor or local hospital;
- Requesting a “replacement” prescription by claiming they are visiting from out of town and have inadvertently left their legitimate prescription at home;
- Requesting a “replacement” prescription for medication that is allegedly lost or stolen.
Some doctors develop a reputation among patients for being more likely to write prescriptions for drugs of choice. When doctor shopping is successful, patients often have their prescriptions filled in multiple pharmacies in an effort to better avoid detection. Of course, a statewide prescription drug database would disclose the dispensing of multiple prescriptions to a single individual, even if the prescriptions are filled at different pharmacy locations. What the Police Look for…
Signs of Doctor Shopping / Withholding Info From a Medical Practitioner
The Tampa Bay Times has reported certain patient behaviors that will cause the Sheriff’s Department or doctors to become suspicious that an individual is attempting to doctor shop. These include the following:
- Paying cash for a consultation / examination when the patient has medical insurance;
- The patient resides in a city or county that is different from that of the doctor’s office;
- Although there is no proof, the patient claims that his original prescription medication was lost or stolen;
- Requesting a certain brand or dosage of a drug at an office visit;
- At follow-up or return appointments, the patient seeks to have the doctor increase the number of tablets that are prescribed monthly;
- The patient appears nervous or in a hurry to secure the prescription and exit the doctor’s office as quickly as possible; and
- An unemployed patient who can nevertheless afford expensive prescription medication.
Possible Defenses to Doctor Shopping
There are several defenses that may be available to the charge of Doctor Shopping. These include:
- Demonstrating that the visits to different doctors were for different legitimate medical conditions;
- Establishing that the medications prescribed were for different medical or therapeutic purposes; and
- Showing that the client properly disclosed the fact of prior prescriptions on a patient intake form, even if the client did not verbally mention this in his or her discussion with the doctor.
Challenging Your Doctor Shopping Arrest Based on a Violation of Your Privacy Rights
Florida Statute §456.057(7)(a) provides that records of examination and treatment by a doctor:
“may not be furnished to, and the medical condition of a patient may not be, discussed with, any person other than the patient or the patient’s legal representative or other health care practitioners and providers involved in the care or treatment of the patient, except upon written authorization of the patient.”
Most doctor shopping prosecutions are premised on multiple prescription records secured by law enforcement from pharmacies and medical records obtained from doctors’ offices. These medical records are guarded by Florida’s patient privacy laws and the federal HIPPA statute. If law enforcement or the state prosecutor obtained your medical records without the benefit of a search warrant, or failed to give you advance notice of their intent to serve a subpoena on your doctor, a challenge can be made to exclude the evidence from use in court. Several recent state court decisions cases have affirmed this principle and excluded evidence of doctor shopping based on privacy violations perpetrated by the police.
What If You Think You are Under Investigation for Doctor Shopping?
Our office may be effective in helping clients who are under investigation for Doctor Shopping or who express concern that a warrant might be outstanding for their arrest. In some cases, we can intervene early and present legitimate reasons to the investigating officer or prosecutor why our client needed to consult with multiple physicians. In other instances, we may be able to confirm if a warrant is outstanding and take the appropriate steps to have the warrant immediately withdrawn. This early action may be effective in avoiding formal charges, or an untimely arrest at the work place. Having a strategy in place before your arrest may result in a more positve ultimate outcome.
Possible Penalties Involved With a Florida Doctor Shopping Charge
Doctor Shopping is a felony in the State of Florida, and being convicted of Doctor Shopping can carry serious penalties. Some of these consequences include:
- Up to a five year sentence in the Florida state prison system;
- Loss of civil rights such as the right to own, use, or possess a firearm;
- Seizure of otherwise private medical records during the police investigation;
- Stigma attached to being labeled an “addict” or convicted felon.
How We Can Help Defend You on Your Doctor Shopping Charge
Being arrested for Doctor Shopping in the St. Petersburg / Clearwater area is a serious matter. You need a local attorney who understands the unique nature of these charges and who knows how to effectively navigate the Pinellas County Criminal Court System. At a free consultation, we can discuss several possible options:
We will closely scrutinize the facts of your case to determine whether any of your constitutional rights or statutory privacy protections have been violated. In most cases, clients have signed a “narcotics agreement” that was provided by their physician. These “narcotic agreements” are arguably protected medical records. If the prescription records held by your doctor were secured without a subpoena or search warrant, we will seek to suppress the unlawfully obtained evidence so that it cannot be used against you. A successful motion to suppress can lead to the judge dismissing the case entirely, or to the State reducing the charge to a less serious offense.
We may be able to apply for your participation in a Diversion Program (P.T.I. / Pre-Trial Intervention Program). Completion of the Program will allow you to have the charges dismissed as if they had never happened. No prison time and no record of conviction.
Together we might determine that your case is appropriate for a transfer to drug court. By transferring to drug court, you can avoid a formal conviction and/or a jail sentence by opting instead for treatment. Such a formal conviction can be avoided even if you have a significant criminal history. If you are a woman charged with Doctor Shopping, you should speak with us regarding a special drug court program designed just for women. Learn more about the Pinellas County Adult Drug Court Collaborative for women.
We can help you find and begin appropriate drug treatment / counseling. We are very familiar with local treatment providers and have found through experience that defendants who take the initiative in timely seeking out treatment may earn leniency with the court.
Our office may be able to negotiate a plea bargain that is designed to avoid a formal conviction and to also avoid incarceration in the Pinellas County Jail or Florida State Prison System. We can present the court with any mitigating evidence that might result in a more lenient sentence as well as demonstrate the steps you have voluntarily taken to deal with your addiction issues.
We can consider whether you are eligible to have your arrest record sealed or expunged. More information about the sealing or expungement of Pinellas County criminal records here.
Legitimate Pain Can Motivate Doctor Shopping
Because of the recent heightened media exposure regarding Doctor Shopping, the National Foundation for the Treatment of Pain (NFTP) reports that many doctors are now reluctant to prescribe potentially addictive medications even when they know that the prescriptions might help their patients. Other doctors may prescribe dosages that are not sufficient to treat their patients’ medical problems. As a result, many patients find themselves breaking the law by doctor-shopping for quantities of a medication that is sufficient to actually provide relief for their condition. Other persons doctor-shop in an effort to take advantage of a growing market of patients who are not willing to doctor-shop themselves. Yet a third category of individuals see multiple physicians in order to obtain a quantity of prescription drugs that is sufficient to maintain an addiction.
Medications Commonly Involved in Florida Doctor Shopping Cases
Many prescription medications are involved in Doctor Shopping charges. Some of the more common ones include:
- Xanax (alprazolam);
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam);
- Percocet, Percodan, OxyContin, Roxicodone (oxycodone);
- Vicodin (hydrocodone);
- Valium (diazepam);
- Ambien (zolpidem);
- Demerol (meperidine);
- Palladone and Dilaudid (hydromorphone);
- Duragesic and Actiq (fentanyl)
Florida Earns Reputation as a “Pill Mill”
Up until now, Floridia doctors, pharmacists, and law enforcement have had no way of tracking prescription drug sales throughout the state. As a result, Florida earned the unfortunate reputation as being a “pill mill” for doctor shoppers who either used the medications themselves or sold them to patients in states where it was more difficult to obtain the drugs. Embarrassed by our state’s reputation as an easy source for prescription medications, Florida lawmakers began to take steps to prevent the practice of obtaining the same prescription from multiple physicians.
Florida’s Prescription Database
As of November 1, 2011, Florida’s prescription drug database is online. Dispensing doctors and pharmacists are now required to report their sales of addictive drugs within 15 days of filling the prescription. Once the prescription is reported into the statewide database, doctors, pharmacists, and law enforcement are then able to use the database to learn whether a particular patient is obtaining prescriptions from multiple sources. Read our website page on Florida’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP).
If You Are Accused of Doctor Shopping, You Are Not Alone
As prescription pain killers, sleep aids, and other prescription drugs have lawfully found their way into millions of American homes, so has the problem of addiction and chemical dependency. In fact, it is prescription medications, not illegal narcotics that are now the leading cause of drug overdoses in the state of Florida (almost three times as many people die in Florida from prescription drug overdoses than from overdoses of illegal drugs like cocaine or heroin). Dependence on prescription medications has become a silent but widespread problem across the country. When national radio talk show icon Rush Limbaugh was charged with Doctor Shopping for prescription pain killers in 2006, many Americans recognized how powerful and indiscriminate a force prescription drug addiction can be. At the same time, many people who obtained multiple prescriptions understood that their actions might now be subjected to closer scrutiny by law enforcement authorities looking to make “doctor-shopping” arrests. Call Us For a Free Consultation We are lawyers who can help you with a felony drug charge arising out of the St. Petersburg or Clearwater areas of Pinellas County. We are experienced in defending Doctor Shopping charges and have over 30 years of combined legal experience in the Pinellas County Criminal Justice System. Call our office for a free initial consultation at (727) 578-0303. We will discuss the facts of your case, avoiding post-arrest publicity, possible defenses, and solutions designed to best accomplish your goals.