Transcript

Taya Graham: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. Remember, this show has a single purpose, holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable, but we don’t do this just by parsing the behavior of individual cops. No. We delve deeper into the system that makes bad policing possible. And today, we’re going to achieve this goal by telling the story of how police in a small Pennsylvania town tried to criminalize a treatment for opioid addiction, even as the suffering from the widespread over prescription of the pain killers has engulfed the country in an existential crisis.

But, before we get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, we might be able to investigate for you. Please direct message me @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, or you can email us at parattherealnews.com. And please like, share and comment on our videos, you know I read your comments and that I appreciate them.

Okay. That’s out of the way. Now, as we often point out on this show, policing isn’t just about law enforcement. It’s also a business. In fact, we have used a variety of different sets of data and personal stories to point out just how embedded the profit motive is in the process of American policing. The point is, you don’t have to dig too deep into the process of American law enforcement to find the cruelty of crony capitalism running through it. And the reason we keep making this point is simple, policing for profit wreaks havoc in the lives of the people it touches. It’s a corrupting influence that turns law enforcement into a tool for inequality and greed that we continue to investigate.

That’s why today we’re going to tell the story of Dawn Williams, a woman whose arrest and subsequent harassment by law enforcement touches all the aforementioned ills of a destructive war on drugs and police who seem eager to use it to book stats and generate revenues.

Her story starts in the small sleepy town of Scottsdale, Pennsylvania. Dawn had just left the bedside of her father who was on life support in a nearby hospital. There, she was facing a horrible decision of if and when to discontinue his care. But as she was driving home, she made a turn without signaling, and before she could drive another block, the police pounced. Let’s listen.

Dawn Williams: I was going through a lot. My dad had just recently fell ill and was in the hospital, and an hour prior to the DUI, his organs were failing, he was dying, and I had gotten the call from the hospital telling me that. And so I was crying, obviously an hour prior to this pull over, and so when he came up to the car, he instantly assumed that my appearance meant that I was on drugs, just because my eyes were red. And so he pulled me out of the car, and he asked me multiple times if I was using drugs, and I told him no. And then after, he did this whole ordeal where he had me do the different tests that [inaudible 00:03:08] and all of that. And I believe I’ve passed it. He says I didn’t, except for one. And then finally he said, “Are you on any prescription medications?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I’m prescribed buprenorphine.” The instant that I said that, he said, “Well, you’re under arrest for driving on prescription medication.”

Taya Graham: And so, despite the fact she had a prescription for the drug buprenorphine, an approved treatment for opioid addiction, and even though she explained to the officer, her eyes were puffy from tears of despair, he arrested her. Let’s listen to what happened next.

Dawn Williams: All that was in my system was the buprenorphine, and I wanted to prove that because I had already admitted to it, and that I wasn’t impaired. And so they took me to get the blood and everything, and then once they did that, they finally released me.

Taya Graham: Now, her arrest was not the end of the story. In fact, the saga dragged on for three more years. But before we delve deeper into what happened to Dawn, I want to give you, the viewer, some background on buprenorphine and why it is such a critical tool in the battle against opioid addiction, and why it is so disturbing that police would arrest her for taking it. And to do so, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Steven Janis. Steven, thank you so much for joining me.

Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham: So tell us a little bit about the history of buprenorphine.

Stephen Janis: Well, buprenorphine was a drug that was developed about 20 years ago for the treatment of opiate addiction as an alternative to methadone. It can be prescribed by a doctor rather than having to go to a clinic, so it’s been considered to be a breakthrough for people who are suffering from opiate addiction. And also it doesn’t get you high, and it doesn’t have some of the after effects that methadone has. So really, it’s been really a breakthrough treatment. The only problem is the bureaucracy has made it difficult for doctors to be able to prescribe it. So really, it’s been a win-win except for the fact that the government keeps intervening in ways that are not productive.

Taya Graham: Now, despite the fact that buprenorphine has been proved very effective, the DEA actually tried to make it harder to obtain. Tell us about that.

Stephen Janis: Yeah. I mean, buprenorphine is currently schedule three, which is part of a schedule that goes from one to five, that sort of tells you how dangerous a drug is. One being absolutely no medical use, and the DEA tried to move it up that schedule, make it more dangerous, more difficult to obtain, and more difficult to prescribe. So it was really counter productive, given that we have this opioid crisis in the country, it was really absurd.

Taya Graham: Now, you have reviewed the arrest records of Dawn and reached out to the police department. What have you learned?

Stephen Janis: Well, it’s amazing if you look at the statement of probable cause that Dawn shared with us, how much the cop tries to get her, makes her go through multiple field sobriety tests, and doesn’t listen to her information when she tells him that she’s on a legally prescribed medication. It really seems, from reading the documents, that they were out to get her. And on top of that, when I tried to call the police department, of course, I didn’t get any answer. So right at this moment, they’re not commenting, but it’s clear from the documents itself that they really, really wanted to make this arrest, and it’s not clear as to why.

Taya Graham: So, we have a legally prescribed, proven effective treatment for opioid addiction. Then, we have a woman who has been given this medication to assist her during a fragile recovery. And then we have a cop who apparently seems set on criminalizing her for reasons that remain unexplained. But unfortunately, the arrest is not where the story ends. And for more on that, I’m talking to Dawn herself. Dawn, thank you for joining us.

Dawn Williams: Thank you for having me.

Taya Graham: So, after you were arrested, tell us what happened next.

Dawn Williams: Once he placed me in cuffs, he put me in the back of the car. When he put me in the back of the car, he did a search on my vehicle. He found nothing. And then my fiancé came to the car because I had my daughter with me. My fiancé came, he picked up the car, he picked up my daughter, and at that time he even spoke to him, he was like, “I sent her, I was home when she left. I would never have sent her with my daughter somewhere if she were impaired.” He even witnessed the cop saying that, “It doesn’t matter if you’re impaired or not, she’s not allowed to do this.” And so then they took me to the hospital to have blood drawn, which I completely agreed to, because like I said, all that was in my system was the buprenorphine and I wanted to prove that because I had already admitted to it, and that I wasn’t impaired. And so they took me to get the blood and everything. And then once they did that, they finally released me.

Taya Graham: Dawn, why do you think they pursued this case? Why would they continue to charge you even after they learned you had told the truth?

Dawn Williams: The only thing that makes sense to me is why they did it, is money. They need to bring in money. It’s a huge thing, that the town that this happened to me in is a small town, there’s not a whole lot of crime, your average, basic small town. So I think that they were just out hunting. I mean, whenever I initially first seen the police and I was dropping the girl off, they were just sitting in their car, parked. And so I think that they thought it was an opportunity to bring in some revenue.

Taya Graham: So how many doctors did they enlist to try to charge you with a crime?

Dawn Williams: I’m not exactly sure of an exact number of doctors. Where I get that information from is when they finally decided, three years later, three and a half years later, to drop this, what the DA had said to the judge was that the Commonwealth could not prove their burden, and then he gave some reasons why. And one of them was that they had reached out to multiple different doctors to try and get one of them to say that this medication definitely would have impaired her, in the amount of medication, et cetera, et cetera. So I’m not exactly sure how many, but I know it was quite a few and I know they contacted, like I said, the initial lab that they took me to was obviously of their choice, but then that wasn’t even good enough. They still sent the blood work out, again, to at least another one, or I think he said other labs, we sent it to other labs, and said that they tried to get it to just say something different, but it all came up the same.

Taya Graham: So prosecutors refused to drop this case. Tell us about what happened.

Dawn Williams: So initially when they charged me, they charged me with, I have no background, I have no criminal record. So initially they charged me with a regular first offense DUI. So that means that I would have something called an ARD, that I should have been able to use, if in fact that, like I wasn’t willing to go to trial, if I wasn’t willing to chance being convicted. If I wanted to just, get a lesser sentence, have it expunged in the end, and all of those benefits of taking a deal. I was given that initially. But then, I don’t know who found out, or who realized, it wasn’t found out, it was always in the police report that my daughter was with me, but they offered me my ARD. I accepted. I was scared. Like I said, at the time they keep kept pounding into my head that DUIs, you can’t beat them. If a cop says you were DUI, I don’t know the percentage, but you’re basically going to be charged.

And so that really scared me that I would have this record lingering over me, so I was going to take it. But somebody was greedy, and all of a sudden said, “No, she had her daughter with her, that bumps it up from a regular misdemeanor to an M1,” which is a misdemeanor first, I don’t know, it bumps it up to kind of like as if it was my second or third time getting a DUI, opposed to my first DUI. And that made the penalties a lot worse as well. So, I reached out to Dr. Fisher and let him know what was going on, and by the grace of God, he was outraged. So he was willing to come and testify for me any time that I needed, free of charge. He was willing to have me tested out of his pocket, neurologically, physically, mentally, anything that they needed to prove that this medication is not what they think it is. And that’s really the only way I beat this charge, was because I had him in my corner.

Dawn, how has this affected you personally? I’m assuming that if you were being treated for addiction, this must’ve been very difficult, and this case dragged on for three years. Can you tell us what kind of toll this has taken on you and your family? This must’ve been an emotional and financial burden as well.

Dawn Williams: About six months after the incident, I, for no connection to this, I moved to North Carolina. And they still had me come back for [inaudible 00:12:13] regularly, which cost a lot of money to travel from North Carolina back to Pennsylvania, it’s about a 10 hour drive. I went through the steps of getting on this medication and to recover from addiction, and had been on this medication for about two years at this point.

So I had been on it for quite some time and it helped me tremendously. It’s how people get their lives back. Whenever somebody is addicted and they go through withdrawal, and I’m not trying to make excuses for it because it can be done, but when you have children, you have to just go through that, stop work, stop taking care of your kids. That’s not easy.

It’s a medication that they themselves prescribed. I mean, during this case, they tried to have me go have what they call a PRN, which is a [inaudible 00:13:09] evaluation at a drug and alcohol behavioral help center. If I wasn’t already on buprenorphine, they would recommend me getting on buprenorphine. So it’s just ironic that they want to pull you over for something that they themselves, and charge you on, for something that they themselves recommend.

Taya Graham: As you know, the mainstream media often highlights cases of police brutality as exceptional examples of so-called bad apple cops. They like to use shocking footage and brutal arrests as proof that they are adroitly putting the spotlight on American law enforcement when extreme behavior warrants it. Fair enough. But the problem with this type of reporting is that it misses the forest for the trees. What I mean is it ignores how the system slowly grinds up people like Dawn with little or no oversight, how the law enforcement industrial complex finds new ways to feed off the public trough by dragging people into a system who clearly don’t belong there, and how it achieves that goal by insinuating itself into facets of civil life where it seems ill suited to operate, but intervenes nonetheless.

And let me add, on a personal note, getting buprenorphine as treatment for opioid addiction can be the beginning of saving your life. Most of you watching have a loved one, a family member or a friend, who have had their lives damaged by addiction. Can you imagine them being persecuted and prosecuted for doing the right thing and getting a doctor’s treatment?

To make this clear, I want you to take a close look at one of the documents Dawn shared with us. It’s the medical bill for the so-called drug test which police conducted in order to justify the charges against her. The total for this, for lack of a better term, test, was $450. But I want you to think about that for a second, and consider the implications, because that 450 is a symbol of a deeper malaise that has been the focus of this show.

First of all, there’s a special $200 buprenorphine charge. We called the County Medical Examiner’s Office and tried to determine what that was, but best we can guess, it’s a special charge just to test for buprenorphine. And if that’s not odd enough, then we have another so-called administrative fee. That’s another 50 bucks. I guess he might be saying at this point, so cops wasted a couple hundred bucks on a test, so what? I mean in the grander scheme of an industry that spends $80 billion a year on incarceration, what’s a couple hundred bucks among friends?

Well, it’s what that money represents, not the dollar amount, that’s more important. Notice how the County Medical Examiner was able to use a bad arrest to rack up a nice piece of cash on a meaningless case of trumped up charges. Maybe this isn’t the first time they’ve had to test for buprenorphine. Maybe this is a nice little gift from the cops to keep bringing in revenue to keep the lights on. Maybe it’s just one of hundreds of tests a month, a nice little police-generated cash cow.

We asked the County to break out the numbers for us, and surprise, they haven’t responded. And maybe they’re not the only agency with their hand in the cookie jar. Let’s remember that the prosecutors put Dawn through a three year ordeal, ordering her to submit to a mental evaluation. I wonder who gets paid for that? And let’s not forget her useless public defender who was billing taxpayers while he continued to drag out the case. And we can’t fail to mention the prosecutors that went on a doctor shopping spree, again, courtesy of you, the people who pay their salaries.

The worst part of this whole story is that no one was watching. If Dawn had not reached out to our show, this whole fiasco would happen under the shield of secrecy usually afforded to police. The law enforcement heroes who trumped up charges and racked up expenses on your tab would have been able to keep withdrawing from the bank of public safety, unbeknownst to the people who fund it.

Well, sorry to inform the Scottsdale Police Department, but that’s what we do here at the Police Accountability Report. We turn over the rocks and we see what crawls out, even if it’s just a questionable invoice for 450 bucks, we find out the truth, uncomfortable or not. Granted, we’re just journalists, and our job is to report the facts, nothing more, but at least in this case, the public that you purport to serve will get a fair assessment of your services. The people who pay your salaries will have the opportunity to judge if a three year taxpayer financed prosecution is worth the price. For this so-called pursuit of justice will not be served under the cover of darkness, that’s because we just turned on the lights.

I’d like to thank Dawn Williams for being so forthright with us and coming forward to speak with us. Thank you, Dawn.

Dawn Williams: Thank you for having me.

Taya Graham: And I have to thank Intrepid reporter Steven Janis for his writing, editing and reporting on this piece. Thank you, Steven.

Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham: And of course, I want to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support. Thanks, Noli Dee. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at parattherealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course you can always message me directly at tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook. And please like and comment. I do read the comments and appreciate them.

My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please, be safe out there.

While the nation suffers a opioid addiction crisis fueled by profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies, police in a small Pennsylvania town arrested a woman for taking a widely prescribed treatment for opiate addiction while driving. In this week’s PAR, Stephen Janis and Taya Graham examine the case of Dawn Williams. We explore what this case reveals about the ongoing war on drugs and how law enforcement continues to criminalize facets of civic life, raising troubling questions about the true imperative of American policing.

Tune in every Thursday at 9:00 p.m. EST for new episodes of the Police Accountability Report.

Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns.

 
taya@therealnews.com
 
@tayasbaltimore

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer

Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.

He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.