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Florida Bar wrestles with lawyers facing drug problems

Florida's legal profession is wrangling over how to handle its own addicts.

You can see the struggle in the cases of two Pinellas County lawyers who face drug trafficking charges and are described in court records as abusing drugs themselves.

One is Aaron Slavin, a criminal defense lawyer who was secretly recorded when a woman offered to hand him a bottle of about 250 oxycodone and other pills to pay off a legal bill. "Yup, let's do it," Slavin said in the recording. And he added: "I would not use them all, but I, I have people that would take them."

When he and his wife were arrested shortly afterward, Slavin said they already had popped one oxycodone pill each.

The other lawyer is Byron T. Christopher, who was willing to smuggle prescription pills to a client in the Pinellas County Jail, as long as he could be paid for it later and keep some pills himself, according to allegations in court records.

For these two lawyers, and others around the state, the question is: Should they be put into treatment or kicked out of law?

Like many professions, the legal community works to rehabilitate its members who develop addictions to alcohol or drugs. With treatment and supervision, troubled lawyers can return to work.

But addicted or not, breaking the law is a problem. Slavin and Christopher will likely face a difficult time practicing law again if convicted.

It's a "very difficult situation for those two lawyers," said David Ristoff, a lawyer who has handled both the defense and prosecution of lawyer discipline cases.

In addition to the possibility of getting disbarred, both men face prison time — Slavin's trafficking charge would carry a 25-year minimum sentence.

The difficulty the profession is having with the issue came out last year in the case of Miami Beach lawyer Noah Daniel Liberman, who became "severely addicted" to methamphetamine and ecstasy and eventually was charged with dealing drugs.

The Florida Bar recommended suspending him from the practice of law for three years: a serious penalty, but one that allowed for some hope of a second chance. In spite of his arrest, the Bar saw positive signs; Liberman showed remorse, got immediate drug treatment and cooperated fully with police.

But the Florida Supreme Court didn't think that was enough, saying "only disbarment can measure up to the gravity of a conviction for illegal drug trafficking and serve as a sufficient deterrent for others who might be tempted to engage in similar illegal activity."

Even the court was not united. In a separate opinion, Barbara Pariente wrote that Liberman had lived an "exemplary and drug-free existence" in nearly six years since the crime, and "the overwhelming evidence in this case demonstrates that his misconduct stemmed from a severe addiction to drugs, did not arise from the practice of law, and resulted in no client harm." She and one other justice favored the three-year suspension.

The phrase used by Pariente — no client harm — is a key point for the Bar. Both Slavin and Christopher are accused of a crime that involved a client, or at least the girlfriend of a client in Slavin's case.

The legal system is based on "trust that the lawyer is looking out for a client's best interest," said Ken Marvin, director of lawyer regulation for the Florida Bar.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office video shows Slavin meeting with a young woman whose boyfriend is a client of his. The two talk about using prescription drugs, and Slavin said:

"My wife's been there, I've been there, you know what I'm saying? Like I relate to what's going on. And it sucks, man, you quit and get all sweaty and cold and chills. . . . It's hard to quit cold turkey but you need to."

Slavin also said: "My wife's at the point where you know, maybe she was taking five or six a day and I literally had to draw her up a schedule."

Their conversation turned to children, and Slavin revealed that his wife was pregnant.

Slavin and the young woman talked about the pills, and Slavin said he was not dealing drugs, but "I'll give you X amount, for fair market value."

But something worried him, "because I'm, like, always paranoid." So he explained: If she drove the pills to his house, she wouldn't get into trouble, because she had a prescription.

On the other hand, "If I drive them home and something happens, like I get trafficking, a 25-year minimum mandatory. So I was thinking, if you could, I would be more than happy to give you major credit for what it's worth" to bring them to his house in St. Petersburg.

Christopher was recently suspended by the Florida Bar for 91 days for matters apart from his criminal case. In the criminal case, court records indicate that the investigation began when a jail inmate handed deputies one of the lawyer's business cards. A police report says: "On the back of the card was the following: 'This attorney has been bringing in ROXIS and CIGARETTES to his clients. He does this and adds the cost of the pills to his attorney's fees. He also offers them to people like me who have no money to pay him but will take our cases pro bono as long as we refer people to him. . . . Drug test him and search well.' "

Florida Bar wrestles with lawyers facing drug problems 01/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 11:03pm]

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