Crime

SLO doctor accused of running pill mill won’t face felony charges. This is why

Rees Family Medical operated at 4251 S. Higuera St. On Monday, the business was shuttered and its website did not appear to be operational. A San Luis Obispo judge on Monday dismissed six felony charges against Rees, who was charged in May with supplying pain medication without a prescription.
Rees Family Medical operated at 4251 S. Higuera St. On Monday, the business was shuttered and its website did not appear to be operational. A San Luis Obispo judge on Monday dismissed six felony charges against Rees, who was charged in May with supplying pain medication without a prescription. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Clarification: A photo that showed a wider view of the office complex has been removed and replaced with a specific photo of the former Rees Family Medical office.

A San Luis Obispo doctor who allegedly misprescribed undercover officers with pain medication in 2015 will no longer face charges after a judge ruled Monday that prosecutors had pushed back her arraignment past the 3-year statute of limitations.

Dr. Atsuko Eubank Rees, 68, had been charged in May with six felony counts of prescribing a controlled substance for a non-legitimate purpose following a 2015 sting by police. Each count carried up to three years in San Luis Obispo County Jail, according to court records.

The over-prescription of pain medication by doctors across the country has been attributed to an “epidemic” of opiate abuse, which, as of March 2018, was causing an average of 115 overdose deaths a day, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But with her arraignment postponed four times since her arrest — most recently at the request of the District Attorney’s Office — a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge on Monday found that the statute of limitations had passed and dismissed all charges.

A spokesman for the county District Attorney’s Office didn’t immediately return a request for comment Monday morning.

Following Monday’s hearing, Rees’ attorney, Chris Casciola, said that the delays in the case were also prompted by complexities caused by the involvement of several state agencies.

“That said, I was extremely confident we would have prevailed at trial,” Casciola said. “We didn’t simply win this on a technicality.”

Dr. Atsuko Rees
Dr. Atsuko Rees Yelp.com

Accusation

Rees operated Rees Family Medical at 4251 S. Higuera St. On Monday, the business was shuttered and its website did not appear to be operational.

Rees’s medical license, which was set to expire in September, is currently listed as delinquent for failure to pay renewal fees, according to state records.

The District Attorney’s criminal complaint filed against Rees in May alleges she prescribed Norco, known generically as hydrocodone, and Percoset, a mixture of oxycodone and acetaminophen, to three undercover officers in the spring and summer of 2015.

According to a petition subsequently filed by the Medical Board of California in May seeking to suspend or revoke Rees’ license, one undercover officer posed as a plumber with “a history of depression and anxiety” and asked Rees for a prescription for Norco or Vicodin, a mixture of hydrocodone and acetaminophen, for sleep.

The document states that Rees told the officer that she couldn’t prescribe the medicine for sleep, but that “it has to be for pain,” she allegedly told the supposed patient.

The state filing alleges that Rees didn’t perform basic physical evaluations on the undercover officer and didn’t confirm the officer’s medical history with documentation or follow up on his supposed afflictions.

After the officer first volunteered that he experienced some shoulder pain and asked for the highest possible dosage of Norco, “(Rees) briefly checked (the officer’s) heart, then prescribed him 30 pills of Norco,” the filing said.

That same officer returned on Aug. 21 to request a refill and, after another four-minute appointment, received a prescription for 30 more pills, the state claims.

The officer paid about $100 cash up front before each appointment, the petition alleges, and the visits each lasted less than five minutes.

The petition contains similar allegations for the visits of the two other undercover officers, as well as several patients who were treated by Rees between 2011 and 2014.

Rees has faced past accusations handing out improper prescriptions, which the medical board noted.

In 2011, she was sued by the family of Cal Poly student Matthew Hurlbutt, who in 2010 was struck and killed by a truck while walking along Highway 101. Hurlbutt’s family accused Rees in their lawsuit of improperly prescribing medical cannabis.

At the time of his death, Hurlbutt reportedly had THC in his system, in addition to cocaine and alcohol.

As a result, the medical board found that Rees improperly prescribed medical marijuana and placed her on a five-year probation following a 45-day suspension. She was also ordered to enroll in a UC San Diego School of Medicine course on prescribing practices as well as courses on ethics and medical record-keeping.

Charges linger

After Rees’s arraignment was postponed in June and again in July at the request of Casciola, the District Attorney’s Office requested the case be postponed twice again in August. Then Casciola filed a demurrer challenging the charges after the three-year statute of limitations expired on the first charge.

State law says that the filing of charges alone is not enough to “commence” a criminal action, which instead legally begins once a defendant is arraigned in court. The statute had expired on the remaining charges by October, according to court records.

In opposition, deputy district attorney Michael Frye, who took over the case from another prosecutor in late July, argued in a filing that logistical issues prevented the timely hearing.

Still, Frye wrote, the “functional purposes served by an arraignment” had been satisfied when Rees made four court appearances, was represented by an attorney, and was sent a letter by the District Attorney’s Office notifying her that charges had been filed.

“Though not formally arraigned, she was afforded the procedural safeguards that a formal arraignment was designed to offer,” Frye wrote in November.

Arguments were presented before Guerrero Nov. 28.

Casciola said Monday that local prosecutors still have the option of filing a writ to challenge Guerrero’s ruling, but the attorney said he doubts the case will return.

“The law is pretty black and white when it comes to statute of limitations,” he said.

Casciola added that the doctor had been “winding down” her practice and had plans to retire before the charges were filed.

But he said Rees aims to keep her license for now in order to volunteer for various organizations in the community, adding that she’s played a critical role in the medical treatment of the county’s most low-income and vulnerable population.

“This woman treats more addicts in the county than any other doctor I know of,” Casciola said. “If she’s not able to continue to practice, there may be a huge void in this county.”

The medical board’s disciplinary action against Rees remains ongoing. The state website did not list a hearing date as of Monday afternoon.

Read Next



Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

  Comments