Dr. Joseph Edwin Oesterling of Saginaw in Central Michigan had been accused of running a “pill mill,” a term used by investigators to describe a doctor who inappropriately gives out medication, often for non-medical reasons.
Several clinics and residences linked to Oesterling were searched in October 2016. During these searches, which were part of a seven-month investigation led by the Thumb Narcotics Unit and the DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squad of Detroit, police seized controlled substances and various electronic and financial records.
On two occasions, undercover agents visited Oesterling’s offices, faking their pain in order to obtain prescription drugs. Oesterling, who had earlier been the University of Michigan’s Chief of Urology, was formally charged in December 2016. At the same time, assets worth $6.2 million were seized. These included four properties, five vehicles, and more than 20 bank accounts.
These assets were seized using a process called civil asset forfeiture, a procedure where law enforcement may take an individual’s property if it is suspected of being involved in criminal activity. Since this is a civil and not a criminal procedure, these seizures were legally unrelated to the criminal case against Oesterling.
The criminal trial began in September 2017. Oesterling faced seven charges: continuing a criminal enterprise, maintaining a drug house, and five counts of delivering Schedule II controlled substances. Of these, the most severe charge was continuing a criminal enterprise as it carries a 20-year minimum sentence.
The trial, which lasted nearly a month, ended with Oesterling being acquitted of all charges. “We believed in Dr. Oesterling from the beginning,” said his attorney, Ronald W. Chapman. “We are very happy that Dr. Oesterling can now put his life back together after resolving these fictitious charges. Dr. Oesterling was at all times acting in the best interest of his patients in order to treat their legitimate pain complaints.”
Even though Oesterling no longer faced criminal charges, his problems were far from over. As Oesterling’s property had been seized using a civil procedure, it was not automatically returned at the end of his criminal trial. While the standard of proof in a criminal trial must be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard of proof in civil asset forfeiture is lower in most states.
In Michigan, assets may be seized if there is “clear and convincing evidence.” In Michigan, the onus is often on the owner to prove his or her innocence. This is the reverse of a criminal case where it is the prosecution who must prove guilt.
Once Oesterling was acquitted of the criminal charges, he still had to fight to have his property returned. It took another year before the judge dismissed the county’s civil asset forfeiture suit. Chapman said the case was dismissed because the court “did not find that [the prosecutor’s] evidence established a substantial connection between the Defendant property and criminal activity.”
Although Oesterling will now have his property returned, it has taken two years to have his name cleared. “After he was acquitted just under one year ago,” explained Chapman, “the prosecution kept their claim on his property and continued to allege he was a drug pusher.”
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