Richard Paey

Pasco County, Florida
Date of Alleged Crime: 1997

Richard Paey is a pain medication patient who was convicted of drug trafficking. In 1985, Paey was injured in a car crash near Philadelphia on the Schuylkill Expressway. After a failed operation, he was left with metal screws in his spine and unrelenting pain. He was also later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Doctors could do little for the wheelchair bound Paey other than prescribe painkillers. Over time as Paey developed a tolerance for the painkillers, he had to use higher and higher doses to gain relief. Paey tried to cut back his dependence on painkillers, but to no avail as attempting to cut back simply meant enduring pain.

After Paey and his family moved to Florida in 1994, he found that obtaining painkilling drugs was a problem. Doctors did not want to prescribe the high doses of the drugs that Paey needed because they were fearful of attracting police attention. They faced fines, suspension, the loss of license or practice, the seizure of property, or even prison time in the event that drug cops (most of whom have no medical training) decided they are prescribing too many painkillers. One doctor even told Paey he was “screwed.”

Paey's doctor in New Jersey, Stephen Nurkiewicz, whom Paey had had for 7 years, agreed to continue his care. He mailed and faxed prescriptions to him, and even sent some prescriptions undated to ensure Paey would not have to endure the nightmare of running out of his pain medicine.

Convinced Paey might be reselling his painkillers, local police placed Paey under surveillance for two months in early 1997. Though they found no evidence of him reselling his drugs, police accompanied by a full SWAT team arrested Paey. When contacted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Nurkiewicz at first supported Paey and admitted mailing him undated prescriptions and verifying his prescriptions to pharmacists. However, when shown evidence that Paey had filled 200 prescriptions over a two year period for 18,000 pills, Nurkiewicz then stated that all of the prescriptions were forgeries. Nurkiewicz faced 25-years-to-life imprisonment for the excessive prescribing of painkillers.

State Prosecutor Scott Andringa said Paey couldn't possibly have taken all of the pills he obtained as the amount would have required him to consume 25 a day. But Paey said he consumed all his pills and did not sell a single pill. Andringa focused on the number of pills, but Nurkiewicz had had to prescribe Paey a large number of low-strength pills as prescribing higher strength painkillers would have invited investigation from the DEA.

According to Dr. Russell Portnoy, chairman of the Department of Pain Medicine at New York's Beth Israel Hospital, “People are literally able to take industrial strength doses without sustaining any problem at all. ... I take care of two grandmothers. Each one requiring grams a day of morphine. Absolutely extraordinary doses. Now, obviously, if these high doses were given before they had a chance to acclimate to the drug, they would have been lethal.”

Under Florida law, the possession of just one bottle of illegally obtained painkillers (28 grams) is considered drug trafficking which carries a severe penalty, a much higher penalty than trafficking in much larger amounts of cocaine. Paey was tried three times, the first trial resulting in a mistrial, and the verdict in the second trial being thrown out due to procedural errors.

In 2004, at Paey's third trial, Nurkiewicz's testimony was contradicted both by his own words and by pharmacists who said he had approved the prescriptions. Andringa, however, told the jurors that even if they believed the doctor had prescribed the drugs, Paey should still be convicted because the doctor should never have written all the prescriptions. In other words, instead of listening to his trained physician, Paey should have tried to anticipate what a prosecutor would prescribe for him.

During jury deliberations, the jury foreman told his fellow jurors it was okay to vote guilty because he, the jury foreman, knew the defendant would only get probation. The jury convicted Paey of 15 counts of prescription forgery, unlawful possession of a controlled substance, and drug trafficking. Unfortunately, the foreman was wrong. The judge had to impose the mandatory sentence of 25 years imprisonment.

Prosecutors conceded that there was no evidence the painkillers in Paey's possession were for anything other than his own use. They had offered him a plea bargain that would have helped him avoid jail time, but Paey refused, insisting on his innocence and fearful that a plea would make other doctors in the state more reluctant to treat pain than they already were. Ironically, while in prison, the state of Florida paid for a morphine pump that administered painkillers to Paey at rates higher than what he got from the 25 a day low-strength pills he had been taking.

In 2007, after much media attention was focused on Paey's case, Florida Governor Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, unanimously voted to grant him a full pardon. Paey served about three and a half years of imprisonment.  [4/09]


References:  60 Minutes #1, 60 Minutes #2, NY Times, Reason

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Northern Florida Cases