Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Fourth Circuit holds that good faith is relevant to section 841 charges brought against physicians

In UNITED STATES v. HURWITZ, a jury convicted Dr. William E. Hurwitz of multiple counts of drug trafficking for prescribing narcotic pain medicine in violation of federal statutory law. Hurwitz appealed his conviction, inter alia, arguing that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on the law. To convict a doctor for violating section 841, the government must prove: (1) that the defendant distributed or dispensed a controlled substance; (2) that the defendant acted knowingly and intentionally; and (3) that the defendant's actions were not for legitimate medical purposes in the usual course of his professional medical practice or were beyond the bounds of medical practice. Hurwitz argued that the district court erred by rejecting his request for a "good faith" instruction inasmuch as his good faith in issuing the challenged prescriptions was relevant to his intent when treating his patients and thus relevant to the jury's determination of whether he acted outside the bounds of accepted medical practice or without a legitimate medical purpose. The judge did not charge good faith on the trafficking counts because he believed that good faith was legally irrelevant. The panel disagreed with the district court, noting that it is proper to instruct juries that a doctor should not be held criminally liable if the doctor acted in good faith when treating his patients. The panel further held that this good faith determination is objective rather than subjective. The conviction was vacated and remanded for a new trial.

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