Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What a mess

These folks are trying to help in a poor situation. The legislature approved a pilot program and it is not yet in place and these folks are swept up by a district attorney who likes to consider herself "tough as nails" on crime. No gray areas, no re-look at this, go for the maximum sentence prosecution.

I'm just not sure that justice is being served here by charging these folks with Class "A" misdemeanors rather than the more prosaic Class "C" misdemeanor offense. It sounds more like our political campaigns being served.

Syringe-swap activists handed citations
Don Finley: Express-News

Over the years, Bill Day has made no secret of the fact he trades clean syringes for dirty ones on the street corners of San Antonio's poorest neighborhoods to reduce the spread of HIV — even meeting with two police chiefs to explain his mission and providing the license number of his grant-funded minivan.

But this month, a San Antonio police officer cited Day, a 73-year-old retired commercial real estate appraiser and co-founder of the nonprofit group Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition, along with two board members, on a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia — a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Now police say they plan to refile the case this week with District Attorney Susan Reed as a more serious Class A misdemeanor, distribution of paraphernalia, which carries a punishment of up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Meanwhile, a legal team that includes high-profile criminal defense attorney Gerald Goldstein is assembling to represent the three in court.

"These are enormously decent, charitable people, and what's happening with them smacks of persecution," said Neel Lane, an attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which is representing the coalition at no cost and has filed a brief with the state attorney general's office on the group's behalf.

Looming over it all is a larger legal question, one that doesn't directly involve Day or his group.
Legislation passed last year authorized local health officials to organize a pilot syringe exchange program in Bexar County. It would be the first legally sanctioned program in Texas.
The program is stalled since the district attorney declared her view that the legislation authorizing it is faulty. Both sides await an opinion from the attorney general's office.

Assistant Police Chief David Head said the legislation — if it survives the legal challenge — authorizes only Bexar County's health authority to run a syringe exchange program, not a privately run group like Day's.

"Their meetings with this chief (William McManus) and (former) Chief (Albert) Ortiz did not lead to an approval to begin operating," Head said.

Police Officer Oscar Flores said in his report that he spotted a 2003 Chevrolet van parked at South Hamilton Avenue and Vera Cruz Street just before 4 p.m. Jan. 5, "with several known prostitutes and drug addicts next to the vehicle."

Day, Flores wrote, showed him a typical syringe kit, and said he was "swapping syringes" with people on the street. He produced business cards of a sergeant working in the chief's office and Deputy Chief Ruben Garcia with the Bexar County Sheriff's Office, "stating he was given permission" to exchange syringes.

Both Head and Garcia deny that permission was given.

Day and board members Mary Casey, 67, and Melissa Lujan, 39, were cited. Police confiscated plastic tubs containing clean syringe kits but left them with the used syringes they'd collected — which Day said he routinely disposes of with the Metropolitan Health District.
Day declined to elaborate on the specifics of the arrest, except to say the police report had errors.

Reading from a statement, he added, "Our volunteers regard their involvement as a Christian ministry work intended to elevate egregious suffering and improve the lives of the least among us. The statement and actions of the district attorney have brought all needle exchange activities to a halt. As a result, we can expect transmission of hepatitis and HIV to increase."
Advocates say Texas is the only state without some legally authorized program.

A working group of health and government officials have been developing an officially sanctioned program. Bexar County Commissioners Court authorized spending $60,000 for a coordinator.