A Tennessee doctor is facing up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges of over-prescribing opioids this week. Dr. Darrell Rinehart, who operated a medical clinic in Columbia, Tennessee before relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana, pleaded guilty in federal court on Monday, according to a release from the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, Don Cochran.
Rinehart pleaded guilty to one charge of unlawful distribution of controlled substances. He admitted that in 2016 he had knowingly distributed hydrocodone to a patient who did not have a significant underlying health issue justifying such a prescription. Rinehart also admitted that he had distributed opioids to four other patients without medical necessity and outside of normal medical practice 18 times between 2014 and 2015.
In March, Rinehart was indicted on 19 counts of illegal distribution of a controlled substance after five of his patients died of fatal opioid overdoses within one year’s time. At least six more of his patients experienced a nonfatal overdose between 2014 and 2016.
When asked to explain his actions, Rinehart told the state medical board that he was unfamiliar with safe prescribing laws and had put too much trust in his patients.
“You always want to do what you could to help people,” Rinehart said. “And, yes, sometimes, people tell you things, you believe them, you trust them, you know them, but you know they’re not always honest. […] That certainly has altered the way I practice medicine now.”
Prosecutors Considered Homicide Charges
Rinehart’s activities had also gained the attention of local police and prosecutors in Maury County, Tennessee, who captured undercover video inside the doctor’s clinic using an informant. Maury County District Attorney Brent Cooper said earlier this year that he had intended to charge Rinehart with five counts of criminal homicide but decided to defer to federal charges.
“People in this area hold doctors in very high esteem,” Cooper said. “I think convincing 12 citizens beyond a reasonable doubt that what Dr. Rinehart did amounts to reckless homicide would have some difficulties. But I don’t think it would be impossible, and we were certainly going to try if the federal authorities had not reached out to us first.”
James Simmons, an attorney representing Rinehart, said the decision to plead guilty to one count of illegal distribution of a controlled substance was made after the defense was given the details of the prosecution’s case.
“Obviously, he wouldn’t be entering a plea if we didn’t feel that was an appropriate resolution to the case,” Simmons said.
Rinehart is scheduled to be sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. on July 30, 2020. He faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.