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COURT MAY DENY PAROLE TO KEEP PREGNANT HEROIN ADDICT IN JAIL UNTIL SHE GOES INTO LABOR

The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Becker, No. 2729 EDA 2016 (October 10, 2017), holding that the denial of Becker’s parole was not manifestly unreasonable nor was it a violation of due process when it was based on the substantial risk that Becker, a pregnant, five-bag-per-day intravenous heroin user serving a sentence for a parole violation, would use heroin if released from prison before giving birth.

Becker plead guilty to a theft charge and was sentenced to probation. She violated probation by failing to report and, upon being arrested for the violation, she admitted to using five bags of heroin daily, intravenously. Police found empty bags and needles in her possession and, at that that time, she was aware she was five months pregnant.

After finding a violation had occurred, the trial court ultimately sentenced her to 4-23 months’ imprisonment, with immediate parole upon going into labor. After serving her four month minimum, but not yet having gone into labor, Becker filed a petition for immediate parole. A hearing was held at which time the trial court learned that Becker had no misconducts and participated in treatment and counseling while incarcerated. Testimony also revealed that Becker had a stable address and family support available when released.

The trial court denied Becker’s Petition after scrutinizing Becker’s heroin addiction, the potential for relapse in heroin addicts, and public safety, as well as considering Becker’s heroin use during pregnancy and the many effects of heroin exposure to an unborn child.

Becker appealed, claiming that the trial court abused its discretion and violated her constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment by refusing parole at her minimum sentence solely because she was pregnant and by ordering her to remain incarcerated until she went into labor for the safety of the unborn child.

In holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion, the Superior Court concluded that it would not have been manifestly unreasonable for the trial court to deny parole in order to ensure the safety of Becker’s unborn child, nor was there any evidence such a decision was based on partiality, bias or ill will. When a defendant is eligible for parole, the trial court’s decision to grant parole is a discretionary act, and it is subject to appellate review under an abuse of discretion standard. Here, the Superior Court concluded that the record did not support Becker’s assertion that the denial of her parole was manifestly unreasonable. Noting that Becker’s gender and concomitant pregnancy were incidental to her well-chronicled heroin addiction, the Superior Court agreed that the basis of Becker’s parole denial was the substantial risk that she would use heroin.

Becker also argued that the trial court based its denial of parole on certain factors that, she claimed, were unconstitutional and/or arbitrary, including gender, pregnancy and the safety of the unborn child. However, the Superior Court concluded that those arguments did not merit relief.

As to the violation of her equal protection rights, the Superior Court summarized that body of law, explaining that “[e]qual protection requires that ‘all persons similarly situated should be treated alike” and that “[l]egislative classifications based on gender call for a heightened standard of review.” That said, the Court then noted that drug users are not a suspect or a quasi-suspect class.

As to Becker’s claims that the trial court’s denial of parole was an infringement of her fundamental right to make reproduction choices, the Superior Court concluded that the trial court did not prohibit Becker from making her choice, nor did it create obstacles to make her decision more difficult.

The Superior Court also found that Becker admitted that the judge’s primary concern in denying her parole was to protect her unborn child. Accordingly, the Superior Court concluded that this was a legitimate use of the judge’s discretionary power to deny parole. Specifically, the trial court based its decision denying Becker’s petition for parole on her status as an incarcerated, pregnant heroin addict. Thus, the Superior Court concluded, the trial court’s action did not burden a fundamental or important right, nor was Becker’s status as a drug addict suspect or quasi-suspect classification. Therefore, the trial court’s action need only pass a rational basis test. And, the rational basis test requires that the action be examined to find if it is “unreasonable, unduly oppressive or patently beyond the necessities of the case, and whether the means employed have a real and substantial relation to the objects sought to be attained.”

Instantly, the Superior Court agreed with the trial court, i.e. – protecting Becker’s unborn child was a legitimate governmental interest. By denying Becker parole, the trial court was simply ensuring that Becker could not use heroin and harm her unborn child. Accordingly, the appellate court concluded that denying Becker parole until she went into labor was reasonable, as the only other alternative was releasing her on parole. Therefore, there was no equal protection violation.

Lastly, Becker claimed that the denial of parole was a cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Superior Court again sided with the trial court on that issue, stating that “parole is not a right in Pennsylvania, so the mere act of refusing parole cannot be cruel and unusual punishment.”

CASE LINK: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/25108115.pdf?cb=1

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