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Plymouth District Court Judge Confronts Heroin Overdoses In Courthouse

BOSTON — Among those on the front lines witnessing Massachusetts’ increasing problem with opiate addiction are state judges.

District Court Judge Rosemary Minehan said at a State House briefing this week that she finds herself trying to balance the law and the public health crisis of addiction. She oversees a drug court session in Plymouth — one of 21 specialty courts where drug offenses are handled with treatment rather than incarceration. And Minehan told WBUR’s Deborah Becker that problems from opiates now take up much of her day.

Judge Rosemary Minehan: It’s been certainly a spike in it, and I’ve been on the bench for 20 years. And I can tell you that as I look back in time, this was not something that was on our regular work plate every day in the volume that it is today.

Deborah Becker: I know it’s probably difficult to quantify, but roughly, half of the cases that you deal with?

More than that. I would say so much of the behavior in the community that people get involved in the criminal justice system — whether they’re stealing from a family member, whether they’re stealing from the employer they’re working for, whether they’re breaking into houses — those behaviors bring them in contact with the police. And so I would say that if you add up things like alcohol and drugs, and if you also want to put in there some mental health issues, I can’t give you a percentage, but I would say [the] overwhelming majority of individuals who are interfacing with the courts are interfacing as a result of addiction.

But this opiate issue is what’s really behind it?

Yes, the opiate issue is driving much of the crime that we see.

I’m wondering if we might talk about some anecdotes, because some of the things that you mentioned at that State House briefing this week were very powerful. One involved a woman who apparently was attending someone else’s court proceedings. She seemed semi-conscious, and then a short time after she had been in the courtroom she died of an overdose.

Right.

And there’s actually a video of her that was provided, I think, to you by her aunt.

Actually it was provided to my chief probation officer, it was sent by her aunt.

So you’re a judge and you’re sitting there. And you’re seeing people who you know are sick, who you know are dealing with these issues. How do you grapple and balance all of this?

It’s interesting. When you’re sitting in the front of the courtroom and you’re looking at 200 people, you don’t know why any of them are there. Some of them may be watching, some of them may be there for family members, and some of them may be there themselves. So in that particular case, I actually recall that she was sitting in the courtroom. I didn’t see her nodding off. But remember, I’m in that courtroom to provide justice to the individuals who come before me. And the case I should be focusing on is the one in front of me. So while I may scan the audience, I’m not really focusing on who’s sitting in the second row or who’s sitting in the fifth row, and who looks sleepy and who doesn’t.

This individual — it appears on the tape — it does look like she was dozing forward and then backward. It almost looks like someone is falling asleep sitting up. And so how do we deal with that? We try as hard as we can. And this epidemic is causing folks that are not part of the medical world, like court officers and probation officers and me, to try to look at someone and quickly decide whether this is drugs or whether this is something else. And it’s hard to do that. And all the time, overarching, are constitutional rights that will prevent a judge from saying, “Step into the lockup because I think you look sick.” I can’t do that. It is difficult on the staff when someone dies. We all feel that, and we know these people. And we hope that that doesn’t happen.

Senate President [Therese] Murray also mentioned another anecdote that happened in court during that State House briefing this week. And she said there was a juror in court who actually became unconscious from an apparent overdose, and a bystander in the courtroom had the anti-overdose drug Narcan in her pocketbook and used it to revive the juror.

Yes. We’ve had incidents during the week — actually another one, as well, where someone was dozing in the courtroom on Monday, and [officers] pulled him off the floor and [drug] tested him, and we had to deal with that. And I called the fire department because I don’t want the person leaving the building that’s under the influence of something. And then Tuesday, upon arrival at the courthouse, I see a fire truck and an ambulance. So I learned from a court officer — and I wasn’t in the session — he, according to the court officer, turned a strange blue. His finger nails were blue, his face was blue. They were trying to revive him. And someone — and I don’t know who it was — indicated that she had Narcan in her purse. After a couple of doses of Narcan, that did revive this individual.

But it’s a real sea change in thinking, and I guess I’d like to sum it up with that. So here you are on the front lines. Do you see yourself as sort of going through this sea change and hopefully coming up with a more creative solution of how to deal with these problems?

Yes, and I think I’m one piece of a much larger sea change. The courts are rapidly coming up with many more specialty courts based on evidence-based models that we know work. I’m paying a lot of attention to how people behave in the courtroom. I’m always asking myself, “Should I be asking another question of this person? Is this person OK?” Court officers [are] walking through the audience, asking the same questions. It is a sea change.

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