Nearly two years after Dr. Carlos Gonzalez Jr. was charged with 31 drug trafficking crimes as part of a pill mill crackdown dubbed “Operation Pill Nation,” the Palm Beach Gardens pediatrician is a free man.
The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office in 2011 charged Gonzalez, 38, with the wrong crime, Circuit Judge Richard Oftedal ruled last year in throwing out charges that could have sent the Wellington resident to prison for years.
On Tuesday, government attorneys fought back.
In a nearly hour-long hearing at the 4th District Court of Appeal, Assistant Attorney General Laura Fisher insisted that Oftedal got it wrong. She argued that prosecutors have wide discretion to determine what charges to file against defendants.
Attorney Richard Lubin, who represents Gonzalez, countered that the discretion ends when there is a specific charge that fits an alleged crime. Gonzalez, who was arrested with five others who worked at North Palm Pain Management in Lake Park, should have been charged under a 2002 statute that was written specifically to deal with doctors who misuse their prescription pads, he said. Instead, state prosecutors charged Gonzalez under a general law aimed at anyone who is engaged in drug trafficking.
“The specific statute trumps the general statute,” Lubin said.
Judge Jonathan Gerber pointed out that the law aimed at prescription-drug dealing doctors carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. In contrast, those convicted of drug trafficking under the general law would spend a minimum of 25 years in prison. “Why does that make sense?” he asked.
“Whether it does or doesn’t is up to the Legislature,” Lubin said. He said lawmakers didn’t explain their reasoning.
If the appeals court upholds Oftedal’s ruling, Gonzalez won’t be done with the criminal justice system. Lubin said he expects prosecutors to refile the right charges against his client. Prosecutors claim Gonzalez, who once earned as much as $20,000 a week, signed packs of prescriptions so the staff could give them to patients he never examined.