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Appeals Court Upholds Woman’s Conviction For Passing on Cocaine to Newborns

April 20, 1991

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ A Florida appeals court has upheld the conviction of a drug-addicted mother for delivering cocaine to her two children through the umbilical cords.

The 5th District Court of Appeal sent the case Thursday to the Florida Supreme Court.

In July 1989, Jennifer Clarise Johnson, 25, became the first woman in the state convicted under a law normally used against drug traffickers. The law makes it illegal to deliver drugs to minors.

Ms. Johnson gave birth to a daughter in 1989 and a son in 1987. Both had cocaine in their bodies. She admitted using cocaine during her pregnancies.

The appeals court agreed 2-1 with a Seminole Circuit Court verdict that the drug had passed through the umbilical cords a few seconds after birth, constituting illegal delivery of a drug to a minor.

Ms. Johnson was sentenced to 14 years probation and ordered to undergo drug rehabilitation, which she has completed.

In a three-page ruling, appeals Judge James C. Dauksch Jr. wrote that Ms. Johnson ″voluntarily took cocaine into her body, knowing it would pass to her fetus and knowing (or should have known) that birth was imminent.

″She is deemed to know that an infant is a person and a minor, and that delivery of cocaine to the infant is illegal.″

In a 14-page dissent, appeals Judge Winifred J. Sharp said the law under which the woman was tried should not apply to the birthing process.

She and others argued that the law was intended for use against drug dealers and pushers who corrupt young children. There is no state law against delivery of drugs to a fetus.

Ms. Sharp said the state Legislature intended to treat the problem of drug- addicted mothers as a public health issue, not a crime.

″Prosecuting women for using drugs and ‘delivering’ them to their newborns appears to be the least effective response to this crisis,″ Ms. Sharp said. ″Rather than face the possibility of prosecution, pregnant women who are substance abusers may simply avoid prenatal or medical care for fear of being detected.″

Jeff Deen, the former assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case, praised the ruling.

Now in private practice, he said the case prompted other prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to develop treatment programs for drug-addicted mothers, who are given a choice of treatment or trial.

The appeals ruling was criticized by Lynn Paltrow, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, who called it a ″slap in the Legislature’s face.″

″This woman has been used as a scapegoat ... by prosecutors in the state to make it look like they’re doing something about a drug problem, when all they’re doing is hurting women and their babies,″ she said.

The Florida Supreme Court is automatically bound to consider the issue because of the appeals court’s recommendation that it do so.

Ms. Johnson wouldn’t comment.

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