Cocaine Law Can Still Jail Pregnant Women
Federal judge overruled "cocaine mom" law, but state appeal overruled his injunction.
U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson last spring declared the law impermissibly vague and blocked its enforcement statewide. State Attorney General Brad Schimel immediately appealed, however, and the law remains in effect while the litigation continues.
Here’s what happened to two women under the law.
In May 2013, Alicia Beltran, then 28, learned she was pregnant. A few weeks later, she sought prenatal care at a clinic in Washington County. She informed a physician’s assistant that she previously abused Percoset, which contains an opioid, but recently finished a course of Suboxone to treat her addiction. The physician’s assistant recommended that Beltran take a second course of Suboxone and, when Beltran refused (believing she already kicked her Percoset use), the clinic reported her to a Washington County social worker.
In July 2013, five law-enforcement officers arrested Beltran at her home, handcuffed her, and took her to a doctor for evaluation. The doctor declared Beltran and her pregnancy to be healthy and said he did not consider inpatient drug treatment to be necessary. Nevertheless, the officers drove Beltran to the county jail.
An assistant district attorney filed an action against Beltran under the cocaine-mom law and an attorney was appointed for Beltran’s fetus. Beltran was taken in handcuffs and shackles to a courtroom, where she requested an attorney. The commissioner said none would be provided until the next hearing. Beltran was ordered to a treatment facility, where she tested negative for all drugs. The court held Beltran at the facility for over two months, scheduling a jury trial for late October. Beltran went to federal court to challenge her detention; the ADA, in response, dismissed the cocaine-mom action against Beltran and had her released.
In 2014, Tamara Loertscher, then 29, was unemployed and could no longer afford medication for her hypothyroidism. Without the medication she suffered depression and fatigue and began using marijuana and methamphetamine a few times a week.
When Loertscher in August 2014 suspected she was pregnant, she went to a hospital to confirm it. She acknowledged her drug use to hospital personnel, but told them she planned to stop using drugs to have a healthy baby. She checked into the hospital for care and received the thyroid medication she needed. But the hospital reported Loertscher to the Taylor County Department of Human Services, saying her behavior with drugs and alcohol put her fetus in serious danger.
Taylor County appointed a lawyer to represent Loertscher’s fetus. Loertscher, however, was not entitled an appointed lawyer yet. While in the hospital, Loertscher had to appear by phone, with little notice, in a temporary physical custody hearing. Loertscher said she did not wish to speak without legal representation and refused to participate. The court commissioner considered this a waiver of appearance, continued without Loertscher, and ordered her held at the hospital and then transferred to an inpatient drug treatment facility.
Loertscher, though, checked herself out of the hospital.
After another hearing, at which Loertscher represented herself, the court found her in contempt and ordered her to report to either the inpatient treatment facility or jail. Loertscher spent 18 days in jail, during which time she received no prenatal care and experienced pain and cramping. She was not permitted to see an obstetrician. When Loertscher refused to take the redundant pregnancy test required by the jail doctor, she was placed in solitary confinement.
Loertscher on her own found a list of Taylor County public defense attorneys and contacted one;, a public defender was appointed. Loertscher was released after she signed a consent decree that required an alcohol and drug-abuse assessment and weekly drug testing at her own expense. All tests were negative. Loertscher delivered a healthy baby.
The cocaine mom law (also known as Act 292) allows medical staff or county social workers to report and detain a pregnant woman if they think she “habitually lacks self-control” regarding alcohol or drugs “to a severe degree” with a “substantial risk” of an effect on or danger for her fertilized egg, embryo or fetus.
Authorities can take a woman into initial custody if they think she meets this standard and she refuses to accept abuse treatment. If a court agrees, it can order the woman to treatment against her will and keep her in custody indefinitely. Loertscher self-medicated, but stopped upon learning she was pregnant; Beltran previously used drugs but was clean at the time she was ordered to a treatment facility. Both women planned no further drug use during pregnancy and therefore refused abuse treatment.
In Loertscher’s case, Judge Peterson found that the statute’s language, especially in light of current medical knowledge, fails to give fair warning about what conduct is prohibited and fails to provide authorities any meaningful standard for enforcement. But Judge Peterson’s April ban on enforcement of the cocaine-mom law was short-lived. Schimel and his department immediately appealed and sought a stay of Peterson’s order.
Though both Peterson and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay the order, the state was undeterred and sought relief in the U.S. Supreme Court. On July 7 the Supreme Court stayed Peterson’s injunction while the appeal is pending. The parties filed appellate briefs over the summer, but no date for oral argument is set; a decision could come months or even a year after argument. Meanwhile, pregnant women in Wisconsin remain subject to a law that may very well be unconstitutional.
The long-term future of Peterson’s injunction is uncertain. Federal courts decide only live, ongoing disputes. The state’s first argument on appeal is that Loertscher no longer has a live dispute—not because her pregnancy ended (a legal doctrine permits continuation of a case involving pregnancy if the issue is capable of repetition) but because she moved out of state before Peterson issued his order.
On appeal, the state argues that Loertscher no longer has any stake in enforcement of the law: she “makes no plausible argument that, having moved out of Wisconsin, she will be subject to Act 292 in the future.” According to the state, “the fact that the present dispute involves a pregnancy-related law does not dictate a different result—this case is moot not because of the short duration of pregnancy, but because Plaintiff has moved out of Wisconsin” and fails to show that she intends to move back.
If the Seventh Circuit agrees with the state, Loertscher’s case will be dismissed as moot, the cocaine-mom law will remain on the books, and pregnant women who once used drugs but no longer do will remain at risk.
Ten medical and public health organizations, meanwhile, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Seventh Circuit saying Peterson was right to declare the law unconstitutionally vague. The organizations represent hundreds of thousands of healthcare providers nationwide and include the American Medical Association, the Wisconsin Medical Society, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
They argue that research contradicts the state’s assumption that prenatal exposure to controlled substances causes inevitable harm. The organizations say Peterson “rightly concluded that ‘no one knows at what level drug or alcohol use will pose a risk to the unborn child’”; thus, an expectant mother cannot know when she would be subject to the law. After repeatedly taking a pain killer before learning of pregnancy? After smoking marijuana once a week for a month or two? After having a single glass of wine?
The organizations argue that the law deters women from being honest with medical personnel or seeking essential prenatal care in the first place. Moreover, the law puts pregnant woman and her fetus on opposite sides of a legal dispute, but their health cannot be separated from each other.
The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, in a second friend-of-the-court brief, sided with Loertscher in challenging the lack of legal representation at critical proceedings. Sexual predators and mentally ill individuals receive appointed counsel at all significant stages of confinement proceedings. Fetuses are appointed attorneys at the very start of cocaine-mom proceedings. Yet pregnant women, even if poor, are not appointed lawyers for the initial temporary-custody and plea hearings, which can result in forced treatment and involuntary confinement.
Loertscher’s and Beltran’s cocaine mom proceedings show that even when a woman requests counsel at these hearings her request may be ignored. Counsel may be appointed for a later fact-finding hearing, but only if the woman contests the case at the earlier hearings. Before any right to counsel arises, the woman must decide on her own how to plead, to demand a jury, and to demand that the fact-finding hearing be held within 30 days.
Loertscher and Beltran appear to be the only two women to have challenged the cocaine mom law in the 20 years since passage. Shortly after Beltran filed her federal case, authorities released her and dropped all abuse charges.
Beltran filed a type of case used to seek release. Because she obtained that release U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert, Jr. dismissed the case as moot while calling what happened to Beltran “extremely disturbing” and suggesting that the result may have been different in a civil rights case. Loertscher’s challenge uses civil-rights and declaratory action laws, which could allow the case to continue after her release or delivery of her baby.
Between 2005 and 2014, said Peterson in his decision, 3,326 reports of alleged unborn-child abuse were pursued by caseworkers. Some 467 of those reports were substantiated with some evidence. The briefs in Loertscher’s appeal suggest why challenges to the law are rare.
First is the law’s coercive nature. When a woman refuses to receive treatment “voluntarily,” she faces a temporary hold in custody and a formal petition for confinement and treatment. Such a choice may coerce women to simply submit to unwanted treatment.
Second, the woman proceeds though preliminary stages without the assistance of counsel, while her fetus has counsel and is pitted against the mother. Then, by the time the woman may find a lawyer on her own or be appointed counsel, she is closer to delivery and possibly unwilling to get involved in stressful litigation.
Third, cocaine mom proceedings are not public. They occur in juvenile court, where files are sealed. The briefs in Loertscher’s appeal note only one additional publicly known case, which made the Racine paper in 2005. No public record means no public outcry and no awareness by attorneys who could advise the women affected.
If Loertscher’s case is dismissed because she moved out of state, perhaps another pregnant woman will step forward to challenge the cocaine mom law. Meanwhile the state can continue to jail pregnant women.