Prosecution: Kentucky Supreme Court Rules Pregnant Women Cannot Be Criminalized for Drug Use

Women who take illegal drugs while pregnant cannot be charged with child endangerment crimes for doing so, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled last Friday. The court held that such prosecutions are unlawful under the state's Maternal Health Act of 1992, which expressly forbids charging women with a crime if they drink or do drugs during pregnancy.

The case is Cochran v. Kentucky, in which Casey County prosecutors charged Ina Cochran with first-degree wanton endangerment after she gave birth to a child who tested positive for cocaine in 2005. Cochran's attorney moved to have the charges dismissed, and a Casey Circuit Court judge agreed, but prosecutors appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which held that the charges could be allowed.

The state Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals ruling, arguing that the appeals court had erred both because its decision was intolerably vague and because the Kentucky legislature had expressly held that pregnant women were not to be prosecuted for drug use. "It is the legislature, not the judiciary, that has the power to designate what is a crime," the opinion said.

In passing the Maternal Health Act of 1992, the legislature explicitly stated that "punitive actions taken against pregnant alcohol or substance abusers would create additional problems, including discouraging these individuals from seeking the essential prenatal care."

The high court cited a similar earlier case it had decided, and that quotation is worth repeating:

"The mother was a drug addict. But, for that matter, she could have been a pregnant alcoholic, causing fetal alcohol syndrome; or she could have been addicted to self abuse by smoking, or by abusing prescription painkillers, or over-the-counter medicine; or for that matter she could have been addicted to downhill skiing or some other sport creating serious risk of prenatal injury, risk which the mother wantonly disregarded as a matter of self-indulgence. What if a pregnant woman drives over the speed limit, or as a matter of vanity doesn't wear the prescription lenses she knows she needs to see the dangers of the road?

"The defense asks where do we draw the line on self-abuse by a pregnant woman that wantonly exposes to risk her unborn baby? The Commonwealth replies that the General Assembly probably intended to draw the line at conduct that qualifies as criminal, and then leave it to the prosecutor to decide when such conduct should be prosecuted as child abuse in addition to the crime actually committed.

"However, it is inflicting intentional or wanton injury upon the child that makes the conduct criminal under the child abuse statutes, not the criminality of the conduct per se. The Commonwealth's approach would exclude alcohol abuse, however devastating to the baby in the womb, unless the Commonwealth could prove an act of drunk driving; but it is the mother's alcoholism, not the act of driving that causes the fetal alcohol syndrome. The 'case-by-case' approach suggested by the Commonwealth is so arbitrary that, if the criminal child abuse statutes are construed to support it, the statutes transgress reasonably identifiable limits; they lack fair notice and violate constitutional due process limits against statutory vagueness."

Somebody ought to tell them in South Carolina, where the courts have upheld the prosecution and imprisonment of pregnant women who used drugs.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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