State v. Christensen, 091620 MTSC, DA 18-0268

Docket NºDA 18-0268
Opinion JudgeMIKE MCGRATH, CHIEF JUSTICE
Party NameSTATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. CHRIS ARTHUR CHRISTENSEN, Defendant and Appellant.
AttorneyFor Appellant: Joshua S. Van de Wetering, Van de Wetering Law Offices, Missoula, Montana Laura Reed, Attorney at Law, Missoula, Montana For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, C. Mark Fowler, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Bill Fulbright, Ravalli County Attorney, Thor...
Judge PanelWe Concur: JAMES JEREMIAH SHEA INGRID GUSTAFSON, Justice Justice Dirk Sandefur joins in the dissenting and concurring Opinion of Justice Gustafson. Justice Dirk Sandefur, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Laurie McKinnon, concurring and dissenting. Justices Beth Baker and Jim Ric...
Case DateSeptember 16, 2020
CourtSupreme Court of Montana

2020 MT 237

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,

v.

CHRIS ARTHUR CHRISTENSEN, Defendant and Appellant.

No. DA 18-0268

Supreme Court of Montana

September 16, 2020

Submitted on Briefs: April 1, 2020

District Court of the Twenty-First Judicial District, In and For the County of Ravalli, Cause No. DC-15-171 Honorable Jeffrey H. Langton, Presiding Judge

For Appellant: Joshua S. Van de Wetering, Van de Wetering Law Offices, Missoula, Montana Laura Reed, Attorney at Law, Missoula, Montana

For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, C. Mark Fowler, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Bill Fulbright, Ravalli County Attorney, Thorin Geist, Deputy County Attorney, Hamilton, Montana

OPINION

MIKE MCGRATH, CHIEF JUSTICE

¶1 Chris Arthur Christensen appeals a judgment following a jury trial in Montana's Twenty-First Judicial District Court, in which Christensen was found guilty of two counts of Negligent Homicide, felonies, in violation of § 45-5-104, MCA; nine counts of Criminal Endangerment, felonies, in violation of § 45-5-207, MCA; and eleven counts of Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs, felonies, in violation of § 45-9-101, MCA. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

¶2 We restate the issues on appeal as follows:

Issue One: Whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Christensen committed Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs with respect to eleven patients.

Issue Two: Whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Christensen committed Criminal Endangerment as to his treatment of nine patients.

Issue Three: Whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Christensen committed Negligent Homicide for the overdose deaths of Kara Philbrick and Gregg Griffin.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶3 Christensen is a general physician who has practiced in California, Washington, Idaho, and most recently, Montana. Although Christensen is not a pain specialist, he considers himself to have a special interest in managing chronic pain.1 In 1992, Christensen began operating a general practice in Kellogg, Idaho, and commenced treating more chronic pain patients. Christensen prescribed to patients narcotics like Methadone, a long-acting synthetic opioid agonist, and Dilaudid (hydromorphone hydrochloride), a short-acting opioid analgesic that modifies patients' psychologic interpretation of and physiologic response to pain.2 Christensen often administered prescriptions for opioids in conjunction with benzodiazepines like Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan), and Alprazolam (Xanax), used for treating anxiety, muscle spasms, and depression. Benzodiazepines are classified as Schedule IV controlled substances pursuant to the DEA. Scheduled narcotics may only be prescribed by a physician or other medical professional with a DEA license. See, e.g., 21 U.S.C. § 829.

¶4 In 1997, the Idaho Board of Medicine filed a complaint against Christensen, alleging he prescribed excessive and inordinate amounts of controlled substances, that he prescribed these drugs to addicted persons, and that he was operating outside the accepted standards of medical practice established by the Idaho medical community. In 1998, Christensen entered into a stipulation with the Board, agreeing to certain restrictions on his medical license, prohibiting Christensen from writing prescriptions for controlled substances to chronic pain patients for longer than 90 days. Christensen did not admit any liability or wrongdoing.

¶5 In 2000 and 2001, the Idaho Board of Medicine filed two additional petitions alleging Christensen violated his 1998 stipulation by continuing to prescribe controlled substances in contravention of the restrictions placed on his medical license. The second petition further alleged that Christensen's prescriptions resulted in the overdose deaths of at least five of his patients and at least six patient hospitalizations. Christensen again did not admit any liability but agreed to surrender his medical license for two years and to probation for five years if in the future he decided to reopen an Idaho practice. Christensen further agreed to a stipulation prohibiting him from writing prescriptions for controlled substances longer than 30 days and that he would engage in at least six months of school-specific education regarding chronic pain treatment before he could resume practice in Idaho.[3]

¶6 Christensen did not return to practice in Idaho, but in 2005, opened Big Creek Family Medicine, a general practice, in Victor, Montana. Christensen's medical license was active and unrestricted, but he was prohibited from writing prescriptions for controlled substances because he had not yet reacquired his DEA license. Christensen eventually moved his practice to Florence, Montana. On August 26, 2011, Christensen was issued a new DEA license. Christensen did not accept insurance payments for services and instead accepted payment by cash or check.

¶7 In 2012, approximately six months after Christensen reacquired his DEA prescription-writing authority, pharmacists in the surrounding areas reported concerns to the Ravalli County Sheriff's Office regarding large opioid prescriptions issued from Christensen. On April 1, 2014, the Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force ("Task Force") obtained three search warrants from Montana's Twenty-First Judicial District Court, authorizing a search of Christensen's business and residence for evidence related to criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.

¶8 The Task Force thereafter consulted with the Ravalli County Attorney's Office and selected eleven patients among approximately 4, 700 patients treated by Christensen. These patients included Kara Philbrick and Gregg Griffin, who each died from prescription drug overdoses shortly after obtaining prescriptions from Christensen, as well as Heather Sutherland, Daniel Lieberg, Erica Cummings, Jennifer Hiscoe, Jacqueline Golden, Michelle Jessop, Paul Peterson, Todd Gore, and Ryan Marchand. The County Attorney's Office alleged that between July 1, 2011, and April 1, 2014, Christensen distributed dangerous drugs outside the course of a professional practice to these eleven patients.

¶9 On October 19, 2017, the State filed the final Amended Information in Montana's Twenty-First Judicial District Court, 4 accusing Christensen of two counts of Negligent Homicide, felonies, in violation of § 45-5-104, MCA, for the deaths of Philbrick and Griffin; nine counts of Criminal Endangerment, felonies, in violation of § 45-5-207, MCA, for nine patients; and eleven counts of Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs, felonies, in violation of § 45-9-101, MCA.

¶10 A jury trial was held October 23, 2017, through November 20, 2017. Christensen was found guilty on all counts. On March 8, 2018, the District Court issued its Judgment and Commitment, sentencing Christensen to 20 years in the Montana State Prison with ten years suspended. The District Court stayed Christensen's sentence until resolution of his appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. Christensen appeals. Additional facts specific to Christensen's arguments are included below.5

STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶11 A grant or denial of a motion to dismiss in a criminal case is a question of law which we review de novo. State v. Ashmore, 2008 MT 14, ¶ 7, 341 Mont. 131, 176 P.3d 1022. A district court's denial of a motion to dismiss based on insufficiency of the evidence is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Miller, 1998 MT 177, ¶ 21, 290 Mont. 97, 966 P.2d 721. We review de novo whether sufficient evidence supports a conviction. State v. Polak, 2018 MT 174, ¶ 14, 392 Mont. 90, 422 P.3d 112. When reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, this Court determines whether, after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. LaMere, 2003 MT 49, ¶ 13, 314 Mont. 326, 67 P.3d 192.

¶12 Generally, this Court will not address issues raised for the first time on appeal. State v. Longfellow, 2008 MT 343, ¶ 19, 346 Mont. 286, 194 P.3d 694. However, this Court possesses the inherent authority to invoke plain error review for claimed errors that implicate a criminal defendant's fundamental constitutional rights when failing to review the claimed error may result in a manifest miscarriage of justice, leave unsettled the question of the fundamental fairness of the trial or proceedings, or compromise the integrity of the judicial process. State v. Taylor, 2010 MT 94, ¶ 12, 356 Mont. 167, 231 P.3d 79.

¶13 We review de novo a District Court's interpretation of statute, determining whether the trial court's interpretation is correct. State v. Sutton, 2018 MT 143, ¶ 11, 391 Mont. 485, 419 P.3d 1201. A statute is presumed constitutional unless it conflicts with the constitution, in the judgment of the court, beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Stock, 2011 MT 131, ¶ 19, 361 Mont. 1, 256 P.3d 899. The party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of proof; if any doubt exists, it must be resolved in favor of the statute. Mont. Cannabis Indus. Ass'n v. State, 2016 MT 44, ¶ 12, 382 Mont. 256, 368 P.3d 1131.

¶14 A district court has broad discretion in determining whether evidence is relevant and admissible. State v. Duffy, 2000 MT 186, ¶ 43, 300 Mont. 381, 6 P.3d 453. We review a district court's evidentiary rulings, including the admissibility of character evidence, for an abuse of discretion. State v. Kaarma, 2017 MT 24, ¶ 11, 386 Mont. 243, 390 P.3d 609 (citing State v. Huerta, 285 Mont. 245, 254, 947 P.2d 483, 489 (1997)).

¶15 Jury instructions in a criminal case are...

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