Supreme Court Upholds Drug Program Confidentiality

Authorities can't use confidential information obtained through a drug treatment court program to bring new criminal charges

By Dillon Tabish

HELENA — Authorities can’t use confidential information obtained through a drug treatment court program to bring new criminal charges, the Montana Supreme Court ruled.

Using that information violates U.S. and Montana constitutional protections against compelling a person to incriminate himself, the justices said in a 7-0 opinion written on July 15 by Justice Laurie McKinnon.

Montana legislators passed a law in 2005 allowing state courts to set up the drug courts, designed as an alternative to prison for drug offenders. The program includes random drug testing and regular checks with a probation officer.

Honesty about drug use is required under the court’s rules, and participants are rewarded for telling the truth but punished for lying. Confidential information can be shared among members of the treatment team — the judge, prosecutor, sheriff and two probation and parole officers — but cannot be shared with anyone outside that group.

If an offender successfully completes the program, the charges are dismissed.

In the case before the Supreme Court, Karlyle Plouffe entered Mineral County’s treatment court program with two friends after being charged in 2011 with trespassing and marijuana possession.

That October, a urinalysis given to Plouffe tested positive for benzodiazepine, a tranquilizing medication that includes Valium or Xanax. Days earlier, a woman reported to the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office that someone had stolen her prescription medication.

Plouffe was questioned three times, the last by a sheriff’s deputy. Plouffe admitted in that interview that he used and sold some of the pills that one of his friends had stolen from his grandmother, McKinnon wrote in her opinion.

Plouffe was not told that he was being investigated for new criminal charges, and he thought he only faced a possible treatment court sanction, she wrote.

After that third interview, Plouffe was charged with distribution and possession of dangerous drugs. A district judge rejected Plouffe’s attempt to suppress the information and dismiss the charges. Plouffe pleaded guilty under an agreement that reserved his right to appeal.

The Supreme Court said state law is clear that members of a drug court treatment team are prohibited from sharing drug testing results with people not on that team. Authorities broke that agreement when the drug testing results were used to investigate the charges against Plouffe, the court said.

Plouffe was illegally required to choose between making statements that incriminated himself or jeopardize his involvement in the drug court treatment program by staying silent, McKinnon wrote.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s conviction.

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