published Monday, April 1st, 2013

Drug-using moms jailed by mistake in Tennessee

NASHVILLE — Some state prosecutors pursued criminal charges against women for taking illegal drugs during their pregnancies because they were unaware that a state law changed last year that prevented such charges.

The Tennessean reports that some women ended up in jail and others had charges dismissed against them after prosecutors realized they no longer had the authority to charge women with assault or reckless endangerment against their unborn children.

April Moyer, of Smyrna, was jailed in February and charged by prosecutors before they realized that the law had changed. She was one of two cases in Rutherford County in which Assistant District Attorney Laurel Hemenway dismissed charges.

Moyer admits to a longtime cocaine addiction. She said she was been clean for five months and she is trying to meet the demands of the state child service agency and a judge, which will determine whether she can regain custody of the infant girl taken from her at the hospital.

“It baffles me. It makes me angry. It makes me embarrassed, going into jail for all of that, for something you can’t even be charged with anymore,” Moyer said.

Tennessee law changed on July 1, 2012. Supporters of the law change said those types of charges could lead to a slippery slope in which women could be charged for their conduct during pregnancy, such as disobeying a doctor’s recommendation. Only two states have such punishments for pregnant women, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, an organization that monitors and opposes such punishment.

But state lawmakers and public health officials want ways to reverse the increasing number of drug-addicted births in Tennessee, which have risen from 56 in 2001 to 672 in 2011.

Even the state attorney general didn’t realize that the law had changed when he wrote an opinion about it earlier this year that later had to be corrected.

Rutherford County’s Hemenway stands by convictions of three women who gave birth after the law changed, because she said drug tests on the newborns, or statements by those mothers, place their drug use before July 1.

Campbell County Sheriff Robbie Goins announced earlier this month that two mothers were arrested and praised his detective. But the region’s district attorney dismissed those charges after questioning by The Tennessean.

Bill Jones, the public defender for one of them, said he watching for other law changes, including a proposal in front of lawmakers allowing prosecutions of women for prenatal prescription drug abuse.

“Nobody’s defending the conduct of taking drugs while you’re pregnant. The girls who do it know it’s bad,” Jones said. “But the fix for it was worse than the problem.”

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