Criminal Law Blog

Denial of Request for Alcoholism Treatment in Lieu of Prosecution Was Improper




Cruz v. United States
 (decided August 3, 2017)

Players: Associate Judges Fisher, Beckwith, and Easterly. Opinion by Judge Beckwith. Gregory W. Gardner for Mr. Cruz. Trial Judge: Geoffrey M. Alprin.

Facts: Two weeks before the start of his trial for simple assault, Cruz moved to be treated for alcoholism in lieu of being prosecuted. See D.C. Code  § 24-607(b). Cruz's counsel said that Cruz had not yet been medically diagnosed with alcohol dependency, but that he wanted to be assessed and would obtain an expert to conduct an analysis. The trial court denied the motion, after a Pretrial Services Agency (PSA) officer said that Cruz had previously turned down an offer of treatment. Cruz was later convicted of simple assault.

Issue: Did the trial court properly exercise its discretion in denying the request for treatment in lieu of prosecution?

Holding: No. Section 24-607(b) authorizes a court to order treatment in lieu of criminal prosecution in a misdemeanor case if it finds, after a medical diagnosis and a civil hearing, that the defendant is a "chronic alcoholic" and that adequate and appropriate treatment is available. After making these findings, the trial  court has discretion whether to grant treatment in lieu of prosecution. The DCCA held that the record was inadequate to support the denial of treatment in this case. The trial court failed to explain the significance it gave the PSA officer's statement that Cruz had previously turned down an offer of treatment. In light of defense counsel's assertion that Cruz wanted treatment, the court lacked a "firm factual foundation" for giving "definitive weight to the PSA officer's representation."

The DCCA noted that the trial judge might also have thought that Cruz was ineligible for relief because he had been recommended for outpatient rather than inpatient treatment. This would have been a legally erroneous basis for denying relief, however, because "[t]he statute does not require inpatient commitment, and in fact indicates that outpatient commitment is an option."

The DCCA also thought it possible that the trial judge though Cruz's rejection of the treatment offered by PSA, combined with his "possible tardiness" in applying for relief, "weighed against granting treatment in lieu of punishment." "But even assuming such reasons would be sufficient to support the trial court's exercise of discretion," the trial court had not stated those reasons, and the DCCA could not affirm on that basis.

The DCCA rejected the government's argument that the denial was proper because Cruz failed to establish that he was medically diagnosed as a chronic alcoholic, noting that Cruz had specifically requested a hearing so that he could present such evidence, and the trial judge had not provided any reason for denying a hearing.

Of Note: The court's discussion of the principles government discretionary rulings, and its review of such rulings, is applicable more broadly than the specific statute at issue in this case. In any case subject to the "abuse of discretion" standard of review, there may be good appellate arguments to be drawn from this case.

DG

Read the full opinion here.