A grandmother of triplets in Indiana recently discovered what it means to be on the receiving end of a bad law and an overzealous, uncaring prosecutor. Sally Harpold faces jail and a criminal record not for child abuse, extortion, or grand theft auto. No; she’s being prosecuted by Vermillion County District Attorney Nina Alexander for buying two small boxes of cold medicine within one week. This truly is law enforcement run amok.
Thanks to Republican President George W. Bush, who signed legislation in 2006 that “strengthened” the USA PATRIOT Act, the federal government now regulates the sale and purchase of all forms of cold medicines and related drugs that contain pseudoephedrine. The reason for this chapter in the “Nanny State” is that a relatively small number of individuals were purchasing large quantities of Sudafed and other pseudoephedrine-containing, over-the-counter medications, to use in the illicit manufacture of methamphetamine, a Controlled Substance. Rather than working to improve its ability to identify and prosecute such law breakers, the federal and most state governments decided it was easier to simply inconvenience every otherwise law-abiding citizen, by prohibiting over-the-counter sales of the popular medications, and creating data bases of who purchases the drugs, how much they purchase, and when they purchase them.
Inconvenience is one thing. Ciminal prosecution is quite another.
While most prosecutors in most states will prosecute pseudoephedrine sales violations only when there is an intent to circumvent the law by purchasing quantities of the medicines in order to produce methamphetamine, there are exceptions. Because Indiana’s pseudoephedrine law does not specify that purchases of such drugs in excess of the allowable quantities (3.6 grams in one week) must be made with the intent to produce meth in order to constitute a criminal violation, there is room for the oversealous prosecutor to play “gotcha” with unsuspecting grandmothers.
The particular prosecutor who went after Grandma Sally (and others who similarly run afoul of the overly broad law) quite proudly defended her ridiculous exercise of prosecutorial discretion by noting that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” that her hands were tied and she was simply enforcing the law.
While this particular case does not appear to represent the norm (most prosecutors possess more common sense and compassion than does Nina Alexander of Vermillion County, Indiana) it does illustrate with some degree of clarity what can happen to the average, law-abiding citizen when bad laws and bad prosecutors converge in a perfect storm of over-criminalization.