Crime & Courts

Court: Meth felons must be told they can’t buy allergy med

The state must notify people convicted of possessing or manufacturing methamphetamine that it’s illegal for them to purchase some allergy and congestion medicines – even for legal uses, the state Court of Appeals said in a ruling.

The court said the law – as it was used in a Watauga County case – violated the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution because the defendant wasn’t warned that his previously legal behavior was now criminal.

As of Dec. 1, 2013, North Carolina law made it illegal for anyone with a prior conviction for possession or manufacture of methamphetamine to buy products containing pseudoephedrine. Many allergy and congestion medicines contain pseudoephedrine, which can be used to make meth.

In North Carolina, such products don’t necessarily require a prescription but do require the buyer to first go through prompts on a screen saying they understand that buying the medicines in large quantities or too frequently is illegal. The prompts don’t mention the 2013 change regarding previous convictions, and signs aren’t posted in pharmacies, said defense attorney Jeff Gillette, who represented the defendant.

“When you buy a box of cold medicine, you go through computer screens, and the system will stop you if you try to make an unauthorized purchase,” Gillette said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Nowhere does it tell you that you can’t do this because you have a prior offense and it doesn’t stop you if you have a prior conviction. … In a situation like this, where there’s a 10- to 15-year history of telling people where to find the rules, if you change the law and don’t put it there, where are you expected to find it?”

Legislators can determine the best way to notify meth felons of the change, such as contacting them individually, posting signs at pharmacy counters or adding the information to the screen prompts, the court said.

The decision vacated the conviction of Austin Lynn Miller, who had been convicted in October 2012 of possession of a methamphetamine precursor and maintaining a vehicle or dwelling for sale or delivery of a controlled substance. About a month after North Carolina changed the pseudoephedrine purchase law, Miller purchased one 3.6-gram box of allergy and congestion relief medicine containing pseudoephedrine. He was arrested a couple of weeks later and convicted in February 2015, receiving a sentence of supervised probation.

The unanimous decision means the state Supreme Court doesn’t have to consider the case if the state appeals it. A spokeswoman for the state attorney general said the office is deciding whether to seek a discretionary review.

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