BY MELANIE BUCK –
A bill has been filed in the Arkansas House of Representatives to clarify the definition of ‘person’ in Arkansas law. The bill was filed on the heels of a landmark conviction, won by Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner, on January 13, 2014, in which Melissa McCann-Arms was convicted ofone count of Introduction of a Controlled Substance into the Body of Another Person and was sentenced to 20 years in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Arms’ newborn baby was born at Mena Regional Health System addicted to methamphetamine.
Being the first case of its kind in Arkansas, upon conviction, Riner said, “This case was about bringing attention to [the baby] and other babies who are being born addicted to controlled substances, and it was an important one. It seems that nothing is being done by the legislature to address this problem, and having begun to poke around the edges of the problem we have realized that it is much more common than we suspected.”
With appellate court Judge Phillip Whiteaker affirming the decision of a Polk County jury in the McCann-Arms case, the road was paved for prosecutors to pursue what many claim is becoming an all too common occurrence. And it will be met with opposition from the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics who argue that laws that criminalize drug addiction in pregnant women steer them from pursuing prenatal care or drug rehabilitation.
Whiteaker’s opinion also concurred with Riner’s argument that an unborn child is considered a ‘person.’ As of now, the law is unclear about the definition of ‘person’ and advocates of the law view an unborn fetus to not qualify as a ‘person.’ Whiteaker and Riner called upon legislators to bring clarity to the law. Riner said there is an easy fix to the law by changing the language to state that ‘person’ includes an ‘unborn child in utero at any stage of development.’
HB 1376, filed by Arkansas State Representative Nate Bell, does just that. If passed, the bill will change thedefinition of “person” to “also include an unborn child in utero at any stage of development.” Bell filed the bill on Friday, February 13, and it has now been sent to the House Judiciary Committee. The definition would not only change the law to apply assault and battery cases, but other cases as well.
Riner said he sent the McCann-Arms decision to Bell and said, “He went to work right away.” Riner is grateful to see the proposed legislation go beyond controlled substances. “This bill addresses more than controlled substances, but also would apply injuries to unborn children caused by DWI, battery on a pregnant woman, etc.”
According to many officials, these type of cases are becoming all too common. Riner has also filed charges against Jessica Fox, a Polk County woman who is accused of introducing drugs into the system of her unborn child, as well.
Even though the legislation was unclear, appellate Judge Whiteaker did concur with Riner that in the case of McCann-Arms, it did include unborn children and affirmed the conviction based on the fact that her fluids continued to flow through the umbilical cord to the infant for a period after the child was born.
McCann-Arms is currently appealing her case to the Arkansas Supreme Court.