Recently I parked my car in a bank parking lot and walked up to the ATM. After paying an extra $3.00 for my own money, I was returning to my car when I noticed a rolling target was parked a few spaces over. A rolling target? Yes. A Maserati with the license plate, “4DRFLGD.” That is, “For Dr. Feelgood.”
In fairness, the car’s owner may be a psychologist, or a chiropractor, or an acupuncturist. Or, given the neighborhood of LA I was in at the time, the car’s owner may practice some sort of Eastern medicine which not even Eastern medicine has heard of and his clients may optimistically address him as “doctor.” Or, worst case scenario, he is a pain specialist. Worst case scenario because in today’s aggressive enforcement environment against physicians who prescribe opioid painkillers, this guy may as well mount a megaphone to his car’s hood and park in front of the local DEA headquarters chanting, “Come get me. Come get me.”
A few years ago the LA Times’ groundbreaking series of reports called “Dying for Relief” highlighted the opioid painkiller epidemic, and the reporters even found an Orange County physician whose luxury sedan bore the license plate, “PAINDOC.” Bad idea.
You see, DEA agents and sheriff’s narcotics detectives – who, between the two agencies, are doing the criminal investigations into possible overprescribers – have a sense of the dramatic when it comes to looking for evidence of guilt in these cases. If they come upon an item during a search warrant at a doctor’s office, for example, they will not only understand its probative value in court, but they’ll have an appreciation for the “visual” a particular item might offer if introduced at trial and viewed by a jury. This is why a few years ago, detectives raiding a pain doctor’s office made sure to photograph a book that was sitting on a bookshelf near the doctor’s desk. The book was a medical guide to safe opioid prescribing. The book’s mere presence, though, was not of interest to detectives. What got their attention was that the book was still wrapped in plastic, unopened since its arrival a year or so before.
Think of the power of that photograph before a jury. While a defense attorney would love to argue that the presence of that book on the shelf shows a doctor who is conscientious, current on the science, and dedicated to patient safety, the plastic wrap on an unopened, unread book suggests something very different. One photograph doesn’t prove guilt, of course, but think about this situation, then consider the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.
Then think about the license plate on the Maserati. What narcotics investigator wouldn’t notice that plate if they saw it on the street, or in a parking lot, or in a parking structure? What police lieutenant or supervising detective, or DEA Agent in Charge, wouldn’t encourage an agent to make some preliminary inquiries into what that car’s owner does for a living, just in case? At a time when law enforcement doesn’t think it needs much to open an official inquiry, even the most upright, upstanding, properly-prescribing physician is running a big risk by appearing to act flippantly about a public health crisis. If I were this car owner’s lawyer, I’d tell him or her to lose the plate, forthwith. If they want to assert their rights, they can buy my very favorite welcome mat for their home: “Come Back With a Warrant.” But having a plate like “4DRFLGD” is making yourself into probable cause on wheels. Not a good thing to be.
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