Thursday’s sentencing hearing for a Washington County woman who pleaded guilty to felony reckless endangerment in a 2009 traffic crash death nearly turned into a trial about Suboxone for medication-assisted therapy to get people off opiates.
Rachel M. Proffitt, 28, was originally charged with vehicular homicide by recklessness for the July 27, 2009, crash that killed Misty Briggs, 22, of Jonesborough, who was a passenger in the car Proffitt hit.
Proffitt told Cupp at her hearing Thursday that she nodded off to sleep and woke up to see she had drifted over the center line. She pulled back to the right, but the oncoming vehicle went to the left.
The cars collided head-on and Misty Briggs, a passenger in the car driven by her husband, Thomas, died from injures she suffered in the crash. From the beginning, Proffitt’s prescribed use of methadone became an issue, although the amount in her system was determined to be at a therapeutic level.
As the case progressed through Judge Robert Cupp’s court over the last few years, he has given numerous monologues about methadone, Subutex and Suboxone and how those drugs have simply, in his opinion, become substitute drugs for the opiates they mimic.
Proffitt had been driving to Asheville, N.C., to a methadone clinic regularly to get that medication to keep her from using the opiates to which she was addicted. The day of the crash, she had returned from a 4 a.m. trip across the mountain to the clinic. After driving her husband to work and stopping by Wal-Mart, Proffitt was on her way home when she had the crash.
It was clear in the first part of Proffitt’s hearing Thursday that Cupp was not convinced about her testimony that she started a “step-down” program using Suboxone, a medication designed to wean her off drugs.
Proffitt voluntarily signed up in April for the program at Families Free, a nonprofit organization that provides services to women in or formerly involved in the criminal justice system, their families, families impacted by incarceration and families with children at risk for going into foster care.
Proffitt testified that the alcohol and drug treatment program she participates in is free, along with regular meetings with a physician — Dr. Steven Lloyd — who manages a step-down drug treatment program free of charge.
After a lunch break — and after it was apparent Cupp was not convinced what Proffitt said was true — her attorney, Don Spurrell, asked Families Free Director Lisa Tipton and Lloyd to testify.
Tipton, it seemed, took issue with Cupp when he said, “You all are really a Suboxone clinic?”
Tipton responded, “Judge Cupp, we are not a Suboxone clinic. We don’t provide Suboxone at our facility. We don’t pay him anything,” she said, referring to Lloyd.
When Lloyd testified, he said it was his own drug addiction and battle overcoming it that made him want to work with Families Free and provide the free medical services to women in the program.
Lloyd, chief of medicine at the VA Mountain Home Hospital and an ETSU Quillen College of Medicine Associate Professor, told Cupp that opiate addition is “unbelievably misunderstood,” and treatment works well when implemented properly.
“The problem is we’re in East Tennessee and people bastardize it and use it the wrong way. You don’t just hand medication out and run people out,” he said.
Lloyd said Proffitt has done very well on the program and has cut her daily dosage almost in half. He and Proffitt said they expect her to be off Suboxone in two to three months.
Cupp said his frustration with the issue is that he sees so many people in and out of the court system who use methadone and Suboxone for years without any attempt to get clean.
Finally the judge got back around to the real issue at hand in the hearing — whether or not to grant judicial diversion to Proffitt.
In the end, that’s exactly what he did. On diversion, Proffitt will serve two years on probation. If she completes all the terms of that probation, the conviction will be erased from her record.
During her testimony, Proffitt expressed remorse for the accident and said if she could change the outcome of Misty Briggs’ death, she would.
“She’s shown me she can keep her nose clean. It was a negligent act,” Cupp said.
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