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Arms Receives Maximum Sentence for Taking Controlled Substances While Pregnant

[MENA, Ark.]  It took a jury of five men and seven women only nineteen minutes of deliberation on Monday to convict a DeQueen woman of the offense of introducing methamphetamine into the body of her infant son.  Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner charged Melissa Arms, age 37, with that crime by filing a criminal information on August 21, 2013. In the sentencing phase of the trial, jurors deliberated for forty minutes before recommending the statutory maximum sentence of twenty years.

This case was set in motion on November 1, 2012, when Mena Police Officers Tod Cannon and Dolores Hutcheson responded to a call from the Mena Regional Health System.  Arriving at the hospital, the officers went to the ante-partum room of the hospital where a hospital employee had discovered a pipe which Hutcheson recognized immediately as being used to smoke marijuana.  Hutcheson spoke with other hospital personnel and learned that Melissa Arms and her husband had occupied the ante-partum room prior to Melissa Arms going into labor. Hospital personnel described both Melissa and Joseph Arms as behaving erratically as if they were under the influence of controlled substances.

Hutcheson took the pipe as evidence and immediately contacted Elena Cannon, an investigator with the Office of Prosecuting Attorney.  Using what Hutcheson learned at the hospital, these officers contacted a judge and received a search warrant authorizing them to obtain the blood and urine of Melissa Arms and her newborn child.  The blood and urine were later tested by the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory where it was determined that both mother and child’s samples tested positive for methamphetamine.

Among other witnesses, the prosecution called five registered nurses who attended to both mother and child at Mena Regional Health System.  The nurses testified about Melissa Arms’ erratic behavior both before and after giving birth, as well as the condition of her newborn.  Nurses testified that the newborn experienced several problems including symptoms of drug withdrawal.  After being confronted with a positive urinalysis for methamphetamine, Arms finally admitted to using methamphetamine. While observing her child struggle with withdrawal symptoms and other health problems, Arms tearfully told one registered nurse, “I did this to my child.”

During an interview with 18th West Drug Task Force Investigator Mike May and Investigator Cannon, Arms admitted that she had used methamphetamine on the day before she gave birth and at least three other times during her pregnancy. When asked what should be done about it, Arms stated that she needed drug rehab, and that “the person who introduced me to it (meth) should have his [expletive] kicked.”

“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” said Prosecuting Attorney, Andy Riner. “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.”  Riner noted that medical personnel are required to report to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline, and they did so in this case.  Usually calls to the Hotline are reported to the Prosecuting Attorney, but reports of drug babies calls are in a different class.  “I don’t know all the reasons why these cases are not reported to law enforcement, but having interviewed several doctors, it seems as if they are concerned that if these cases are prosecuted, drug addicted expectant mothers will not seek prenatal care and maybe even choose not to go to the hospital to give birth.”

Law enforcement only became aware of the Arms case because hospital staff was required to contact law enforcement when they found the drug pipe.  Without the drug pipe, law enforcement would not have been notified of the situation.  Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner stressed that Dolores Hutcheson and Elena Cannon should receive credit because they made it a priority to quickly get a search warrant and preserve blood and urine evidence.  Drug testing of blood and urine evidence must be done quickly, or else the body will do its job and break down the drugs.

While the message the jury sent was very clear, the legal status of the conviction will undoubtedly be decided by the appeals courts since no case of this kind has made it through the legal system in Arkansas.  “No matter what the appeals courts do with this case, I would like to see the Legislature address these issues,” Riner said.