How Important Is Drug Court?
In 1999 Tim Kearney was issued his Pennsylvania physician assistant (“PA”) license. In March 2010 he admitted himself into a treatment facility for drug addiction issues. On August 16, 2011 he plead guilty to the felony Drug Act violation – securing a prescription by fraud. At the time of his guilty plea, Kearney acknowledges he understood that by pleading guilty he was “admitting to committing the criminal charge” as alleged under the Pennsylvania Drug Act.
In December 2011 the Pennsylvania Medical Board automatically suspended Mr. Kearney’s PA license for no less than 10 years pursuant to section 40(B) of the Medical Practices Act of 1985. This provision requires the Board to suspend any licensee who suffers a felony conviction for violating any provision of Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (CSA).
In December, 2011, Kearney filed in criminal court a petition to vacate his guilty plea and enroll in the county adult drug court program. In June 2014, after 2 1/2 years in drug court, Kearney petitioned to vacate his guilty plea and dismiss the criminal case. His request was based upon compliance with all terms and conditions of the program. On June 20, 2014 the county trial court dismissed all of Kearney’s criminal drug charges. They were subsequently expunged. (This is really important.)
Six months later, in December, 2014, Kearney filed a Petition to Reinstate his PA license based upon the lack of criminal conviction, the expungement, and his extensive drug and alcohol treatment.
The Pennsylvania administrative law hearing examiner denied Kearney’s Petition to Reinstate his PA license. The hearing examiner concluded Kearney’s admission of guilt in the guilty plea colloquy and statement before the presiding judge when the charges were dismissed constitute either a conviction or an admission of guilt pursuant to the Medical Practices Act. The hearing officer determined Kearney satisfied his burden of proof that he was able to resume his PA practice with reasonable skill and safety to patients, subject to monitoring by the physicians health program.
The Medical Board agreed with the hearing examiner that Mr. Kearney’s PA license remained indefinitely suspended as a result of a “conviction” as defined by the Medical Practices Act. It did not reach the PHP and monitoring aspect of the decision because it determined Kearney’s license was still suspended.
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Kearney appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which reversed. The sole issue on appeal was whether Kearney’s original guilty plea (vacated and now expunged) constituted a conviction and his statements on the record constitute “admissions of guilt” in accordance with section 40B of the Medical Practices Act.
Commonwealth Court reviewed the Medical Practice Act. “The Act provides, in pertinent part, that “[a] license or certificate issued under this act shall automatically be suspended upon … conviction of a felony under the act … known as [t]he [CSA] ….” Section 40(b) of the Act clarifies that “[a]s used in this section, the term ‘conviction’ shall include a judgment, an admission of guilt or a plea of nolo contendere.” Id.; see also section 2 of the Act (defining “conviction” as “[a] judgment of guilt, an admission of guilt or a plea of nolo contendere.“
- Section 43 of the Act further states that “[a]ny person whose license, certificate or registration has been suspended or revoked because of a felony conviction under the [CSA] … may apply for reinstatement after a period of at least ten years has elapsed from the date of conviction.”
While the Act provides for automatic suspension of a license for a felony “conviction” under the CSA, the Act incorporates the CSA by express reference. By all reasonable means, this compelled the Court to unify two or more statutes in a cohesive and consistent fashion and avoid interpreting one statute in a manner that repeals or is otherwise incongruous with another statute.
Under section 17 of the CSA, a trial court “may place a person on probation without verdict if the person pleads nolo contendere or guilty to any nonviolent offense under [the CSA] and the person proves he is drug dependent.”
Importantly, that section also states that “[u]pon fulfillment of the terms and conditions of probation, the court shall discharge such person and dismiss the proceedings against him,” adding that the “dismissal shall be without adjudication of guilt and shall not constitute a conviction for any purpose whatever ….” . Section 19 of the CSA further declares that records of arrest or prosecution under the Act will be expunged. When a court orders expungement, the records “shall not … be regarded as an arrest or prosecution for the purpose of any statute or regulation or license or questionnaire or any civil or criminal proceeding or any other public or private purpose.”
As a surface matter, Commonwealth court observes that a plain reading of the statutes indicates that, while the Act includes an “admission of guilt” as a subpart of the definition of a “conviction,” the CSA commands that a final disposition of “probation without verdict” does not constitute a “conviction.” Under the procedure in section 17 of the CSA for a “probation without verdict,” an individual’s “plea” is, in essence, held in abeyance, or not accepted, until there is a final determination by the court as to whether the individual has satisfactorily completed the terms and conditions of probation; if the individual does so, the trial court dismisses the charges and there is no verdict or finding of guilt in the matter.
Consequently, in order to afford the phrase “for any purpose whatever” in section 17 of the CSA its full linguistic effect, the Court reasonably interpreted it to mean that the oral and written statements made to a trial court in connection with a “probation without verdict” cannot be a considered a “conviction” for purposes of section 40(b) of the Act. To be sure, this construction is the only way in which the term “conviction” in the Act can be harmonized with the same term in the CSA.
Indeed, following dismissal of the underlying charges, the criminal record is expunged pursuant to section 19 of the CSA, and the criminal record cannot be used at all in an administrative licensing matter – not even as proof that the individual was arrested or prosecuted. In some statutes, our General Assembly, without using the word “conviction,” has expressly included the phrase “probation without verdict” to describe the basis upon which a licensing board can refuse, suspend, or revoke a professional license.
However, the General Assembly did not insert this or similar language in the Act. Nor did the General Assembly inject “probation without verdict” alongside “admission of guilt” in the Act’s definition of a “conviction.” Inferentially, the divergence in word usage among the CSA, the Act, and other similar statutes is indicative of the General Assembly’s desire to conceptually separate an “admission of guilt” from a “probation without verdict,” suggesting to courts that the two should not be perceived or linked as being one and the same.
On the whole, Commonwealth Court precedent has clearly concluded as much. For example, in Carlson, a teacher entered a plea of nolo contendere to charges that he possessed drugs in violation of the CSA, a plea that has “the same legal effect as a plea of guilty in the criminal proceedings in which it is entered.” The criminal case proceeded under the provisions of section 17 of the CSA, and the teacher eventually had his criminal record expunged. Although this Court was convinced that the school district properly dismissed the teacher for immorality pursuant to sections 1122 and 1129 of the Public School Code, Act of March 10, 1949, P.L. 30, as amended 24 P.S. §§ 11–1122 and 11–1129, we pointed to the special nature and characteristics of the CSA and the probation without a verdict mechanism.
More specifically, the Court explained that when the charges are dismissed following compliance with probation, “no judgment is entered, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant is placed on probation, an act which normally constitutes a sentence, i.e. a judgment.” On this basis, we determined that evidence of the teacher’s plea of nolo contendere was inadmissible, and further reasoned that, as a result of the expungement, there was “no criminal record” upon which the trier of fact could determine that the teacher engaged in conduct of a criminal nature. Accordingly, this Court held that the teacher could not be discharged from his employment with the school district as a matter of law.
The crisp and clean understanding of this case is that in any Medical Board supervised license case, for which disciplinary action is based upon a conviction that has been opened and erased due to Drug Court compliance, there is no conviction. There is no basis to deny reinstatement of a license. Whether the PHP gets involved is a different question. This case merely, but forcefully, allows for eligibility for reinstatement once Drug Court is served, complied with, and all charges are dismissed and expunged.
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