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STATE OF MONTANA v. CHRIS ARTHUR CHRISTENSEN
Case Number: DA 18-0268
Judge: Mike McGrath
Court: IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF MONTANA
Plaintiff's Attorney: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, C. Mark Fowler, Assistant
Attorney General, Helena, Montana
Bill Fulbright, Ravalli County Attorney, Thorin Geist, Deputy County
Attorney, Hamilton, Montana
Just Call 855-853-4800 for Free Help Finding a Lawyer Help You.
Description: Hamilton, MT - Negligent Homicide
¶3 Christensen is a general physician who has practiced in California, Washington,
Idaho, and most recently, Montana. Although Christensen is not a pain specialist, he
considers himself to have a special interest in managing chronic pain.
1 Chronic pain is defined as “a state in which pain persists beyond the usual course of an acute
disease or healing of an injury, or that may or may not be associated with an acute or chronic
pathologic process that causes continuous or intermittent pain over months or years.” Montana
Board of Medical Examiners, Guidelines for the Use of Controlled Substances for the Treatment
of Pain, Sec. III, at *4 (Mar. 27, 2009).
Christensen began operating a general practice in Kellogg, Idaho, and commenced treating
more chronic pain patients. Christensen prescribed to patients narcotics like Methadone, a
long-acting synthetic opioid agonist, and Dilaudid (hydromorphone hydrochloride), a
short-acting opioid analgesic that modifies patients’ psychologic interpretation of and
physiologic response to pain.2
Christensen often administered prescriptions for opioids in
conjunction with benzodiazepines like Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan), and
Alprazolam (Xanax), used for treating anxiety, muscle spasms, and depression.
Benzodiazepines are classified as Schedule IV controlled substances pursuant to the DEA.
Scheduled narcotics may only be prescribed by a physician or other medical professional
with a DEA license. See, e.g., 21 U.S.C. § 829.
¶4 In 1997, the Idaho Board of Medicine filed a complaint against Christensen, alleging
he prescribed excessive and inordinate amounts of controlled substances, that he prescribed
these drugs to addicted persons, and that he was operating outside the accepted standards
of medical practice established by the Idaho medical community. In 1998, Christensen
entered into a stipulation with the Board, agreeing to certain restrictions on his medical
license, prohibiting Christensen from writing prescriptions for controlled substances to
chronic pain patients for longer than 90 days. Christensen did not admit any liability or
2 These drugs are classified as Schedule II narcotics pursuant to the Drug Enforcement Agency
(“DEA”), the most potent medications that possess a known medical use in the United States. The
DEA has recognized that these drugs have a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe
psychological or physical dependence.
¶5 In 2000 and 2001, the Idaho Board of Medicine filed two additional petitions
alleging Christensen violated his 1998 stipulation by continuing to prescribe controlled
substances in contravention of the restrictions placed on his medical license. The second
petition further alleged that Christensen’s prescriptions resulted in the overdose deaths of
at least five of his patients and at least six patient hospitalizations. Christensen again did
not admit any liability but agreed to surrender his medical license for two years and to
probation for five years if in the future he decided to reopen an Idaho practice. Christensen
further agreed to a stipulation prohibiting him from writing prescriptions for controlled
substances longer than 30 days and that he would engage in at least six months of
school-specific education regarding chronic pain treatment before he could resume practice
¶6 Christensen did not return to practice in Idaho, but in 2005, opened Big Creek
Family Medicine, a general practice, in Victor, Montana. Christensen’s medical license
was active and unrestricted, but he was prohibited from writing prescriptions for controlled
substances because he had not yet reacquired his DEA license. Christensen eventually
moved his practice to Florence, Montana. On August 26, 2011, Christensen was issued a
In 2006, Christensen was also indicted for criminal charges in United States District Court
for the District of Idaho for the death of one of his patients, alleging that Christensen knowingly
and intentionally distributed Schedule II and Schedule IV controlled substances outside the scope
of a professional practice and for no legitimate medical purpose in violation of U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).
See United States v. Christensen, No. CR-06-017-N-EJL, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102370, at *2
(D. Id. Dec. 18, 2008). In 2009, the case was tried in Idaho and resulted in a hung jury. In 2010,
the case was retried, and Christensen was acquitted.
new DEA license. Christensen did not accept insurance payments for services and instead
accepted payment by cash or check.
¶7 In 2012, approximately six months after Christensen reacquired his DEA
prescription-writing authority, pharmacists in the surrounding areas reported concerns to
the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office regarding large opioid prescriptions issued from
Christensen. On April 1, 2014, the Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task
Force (“Task Force”) obtained three search warrants from Montana’s Twenty-First Judicial
District Court, authorizing a search of Christensen’s business and residence for evidence
related to criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
¶8 The Task Force thereafter consulted with the Ravalli County Attorney’s Office and
selected eleven patients among approximately 4,700 patients treated by Christensen. These
patients included Kara Philbrick and Gregg Griffin, who each died from prescription drug
overdoses shortly after obtaining prescriptions from Christensen, as well as Heather
Sutherland, Daniel Lieberg, Erica Cummings, Jennifer Hiscoe, Jacqueline Golden,
Michelle Jessop, Paul Peterson, Todd Gore, and Ryan Marchand. The County Attorney’s
Office alleged that between July 1, 2011, and April 1, 2014, Christensen distributed
dangerous drugs outside the course of a professional practice to these eleven patients.
¶9 On October 19, 2017, the State filed the final Amended Information in Montana’s
Twenty-First Judicial District Court,4
accusing Christensen of two counts of Negligent
Homicide, felonies, in violation of § 45-5-104, MCA, for the deaths of Philbrick and
Griffin; nine counts of Criminal Endangerment, felonies, in violation of § 45-5-207, MCA,
for nine patients; and eleven counts of Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs, felonies,
in violation of § 45-9-101, MCA.
¶10 A jury trial was held October 23, 2017, through November 20, 2017. Christensen
was found guilty on all counts. On March 8, 2018, the District Court issued its Judgment
and Commitment, sentencing Christensen to 20 years in the Montana State Prison with ten
years suspended. The District Court stayed Christensen’s sentence until resolution of his
appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. Christensen appeals. Additional facts specific to
Christensen’s arguments are included below.5
STANDARDS OF REVIEW
¶11 A grant or denial of a motion to dismiss in a criminal case is a question of law which
we review de novo. State v. Ashmore, 2008 MT 14, ¶ 7, 341 Mont. 131, 176 P.3d 1022.
A district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss based on insufficiency of the evidence is
4 On August 19, 2015, the State filed an Information in Montana’s Twenty-First Judicial
District Court, charging Christensen with two counts of Negligent Homicide, nine counts of
Criminal Endangerment, 306 counts of Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs in violation of
§ 45-9-101(2), MCA; an additional 82 counts of Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs, in
violation of § 45-9-101(4), MCA; and one count of Criminal Possession of Dangerous Drugs.
In addition to the arguments below, Christensen argues on appeal that the District Court
improperly imposed a fine at sentencing because he is “effectively bankrupt.” However, in its
Judgment and Commitment, the District Court did not impose a fine. Christensen’s argument is a
non-issue and we therefore do not address its merits on appeal.
reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Miller, 1998 MT 177, ¶ 21, 290 Mont. 97,
966 P.2d 721. We review de novo whether sufficient evidence supports a conviction. State
v. Polak, 2018 MT 174, ¶ 14, 392 Mont. 90, 422 P.3d 112. When reviewing a challenge
to the sufficiency of the evidence, this Court determines whether, after reviewing the
evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have
found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. LaMere,
2003 MT 49, ¶ 13, 314 Mont. 326, 67 P.3d 192.
¶12 Generally, this Court will not address issues raised for the first time on appeal. State
v. Longfellow, 2008 MT 343, ¶ 19, 346 Mont. 286, 194 P.3d 694. However, this Court
possesses the inherent authority to invoke plain error review for claimed errors that
implicate a criminal defendant’s fundamental constitutional rights when failing to review
the claimed error may result in a manifest miscarriage of justice, leave unsettled the
question of the fundamental fairness of the trial or proceedings, or compromise the integrity
of the judicial process. State v. Taylor, 2010 MT 94, ¶ 12, 356 Mont. 167, 231 P.3d 79.
¶13 We review de novo a District Court’s interpretation of statute, determining whether
the trial court’s interpretation is correct. State v. Sutton, 2018 MT 143, ¶ 11, 391 Mont.
485, 419 P.3d 1201. A statute is presumed constitutional unless it conflicts with the
constitution, in the judgment of the court, beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Stock, 2011
MT 131, ¶ 19, 361 Mont. 1, 256 P.3d 899. The party challenging the constitutionality of a
statute bears the burden of proof; if any doubt exists, it must be resolved in favor of the
statute. Mont. Cannabis Indus. Ass’n v. State, 2016 MT 44, ¶ 12, 382 Mont. 256, 368 P.3d
¶14 A district court has broad discretion in determining whether evidence is relevant and
admissible. State v. Duffy, 2000 MT 186, ¶ 43, 300 Mont. 381, 6 P.3d 453. We review a
district court’s evidentiary rulings, including the admissibility of character evidence, for an
abuse of discretion. State v. Kaarma, 2017 MT 24, ¶ 11, 386 Mont. 243, 390 P.3d 609
(citing State v. Huerta, 285 Mont. 245, 254, 947 P.2d 483, 489 (1997)).
¶15 Jury instructions in a criminal case are reviewed for an abuse of discretion to
determine whether the instructions, as a whole, fully and fairly instruct the jury on the law
applicable to the case. State v. Dunfee, 2005 MT 147, ¶ 20, 327 Mont. 335, 114 P.3d 217.
To constitute reversible error, any mistake in instructing the jury must prejudicially affect
the defendant’s substantial rights. Kaarma, ¶ 7.
¶16 Issue One: Whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Christensen
committed Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs with respect to eleven
¶17 Christensen raises multiple issues regarding his prosecution and conviction for
criminal distribution of dangerous drugs. Before discussing the merits as to the issues
raised, we provide a chronological factual summary of relevant pretrial motions, testimony
presented at trial, evidentiary issues, and jury instructions.
¶18 On March 21, 2016, the State filed its first pretrial motion for an order confirming
how the offense of Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs, § 45-9-101, MCA, would
be interpreted at trial, requesting the court adopt the State’s proposed jury instructions with
regard to this offense. The State’s motion asserted that pursuant to § 45-9-101(1), MCA,
the writing of a prescription constitutes a “sale, barter, exchange, or giving away of
dangerous drugs,” and the professional practice exemption for physicians and medical
professionals, pursuant to § 45-9-101(6), MCA, was inapplicable because Christensen was
acting outside the course of his professional practice. In support of its motion and proposed
jury instructions, the State relied on a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case, United States
v. Feingold, 454 F.3d 1001 (9th Cir. 2006).
¶19 Christensen, at the time appearing pro se, did not file a timely answer brief
responding to the State’s motion, but did file a motion to stay the proceeding until he
obtained appropriate legal representation. On July 25, 2016, the court issued an opinion
and order on multiple pretrial motions, noting that Christensen’s failure to file an answer
brief within the time allowed constituted an admission that the motion was well taken. The
court granted the State’s motion on the proposed jury instructions for criminal distribution,
finding the proposed instructions correctly instructed the jury on the law.
¶20 On January 18, 2017, Christensen filed a motion to dismiss all charges. With respect
to the drug distribution charges, Christensen asserted that Montana’s criminal distribution
statute, § 45-9-101, MCA, did not prohibit “prescribing” of dangerous drugs, and
§§ 45-9-101(6) and 102(8), MCA, exempted the actions of physicians acting in the course
of a professional practice from prosecution. On April 5, 2017, the District Court issued an
order denying Christensen’s motion to dismiss. The court also held that it already ruled on
the issue when it granted the State’s motion for proposed jury instructions.
¶21 On August 9, 2017, the District Court issued its first set of trial stipulations. The
State and Christensen agreed to jury instructions prohibiting each party from discussing
potential sentences that may be imposed in this case. On September 8, 2017, the State filed
a motion in limine seeking in part to preclude Christensen from presenting testimony or
evidence from 28 former patients regarding personal medical experiences with
Christensen. On September 22, 2017, Christensen filed a response to the State’s motion in
limine, arguing that M. R. Evid. 406, Habit and Routine Practice, permitted admission of
such testimony because the issue concerned his prescribing practices. On the same date,
Christensen also filed a motion in limine, seeking in part to exclude from trial as irrelevant
(1) any reference to criminal charges in Idaho for which he stood trial and was acquitted
and any reference to events underlying the charges and acquittal; and (2) any reference to
the Idaho Medical Board’s actions taken against Christensen.
¶22 On October 16, 2017, the District Court issued an order granting the State’s motion
in limine to preclude testimony or evidence of Christensen’s former patients, finding the
proposed testimony did not fall within M. R. Evid. 406(b) as evidence of a routine practice
and was irrelevant as to Christensen’s treatment of the eleven patients. On October 18,
2017, the court granted Christensen’s motion in limine to preclude any reference to
criminal charges in Idaho except for purposes of impeachment and rebuttal. However, the
court denied Christensen’s motion to preclude any reference to the actions taken by the
Idaho Medical Board against Christensen, finding such evidence was admissible for nonpropensity purposes to show knowledge and absence of a mistake or accident, and that this
evidence was not unfairly prejudicial.
¶23 In opening statements, the State referenced the Idaho Board of Medicine’s
complaints filed against Christensen stemming from allegations that Christensen
overprescribed opioids outside the accepted standards of medical practice and that at least
five of his patients died of a drug overdose and another six had been hospitalized. The
State also explained that as to both complaints, “[Christensen] never admitted any
liability[,]” but that “he did agree to surrender his medical license for a period of two years,
and he agreed that if he was going to come back to Idaho that he would be on probation for
¶24 On October 26, 2017, in regard to scheduled testimony from Jean Uranga, the
attorney representing the Idaho Board of Medicine at the time Christensen was investigated
in Idaho, the court conferred with each party regarding the admissibility of the proposed
testimony under M. R. Evid. 404(b). Christensen’s counsel objected to the introduction of
allegations contained in the Idaho Board cases, and specifically, the introduction of the
complaints themselves as exhibits as irrelevant and unduly prejudicial. The State countered
that the evidence was admissible under M. R. Evid. 404(b) to show Christensen was on
notice for the crimes in the present case. Christensen’s counsel acknowledged that
questioning as to the underlying allegations was permissible to some extent, that he was
not surprised by the State’s efforts to admit this evidence, and acknowledged the State
provided him this proposed evidence before trial. The court ultimately prohibited the State
from introducing the complaints as exhibits and limited the State’s questioning of Uranga
to only general allegations in the complaint and the number of patients involved in the
Idaho investigation, while barring detailed questioning as to specifics.
¶25 Uranga testified that Christensen was investigated by the Idaho Board of Medicine
in 1997 for allegedly violating community standards of care in Idaho for providing
narcotics to patients without treating their primary conditions, not conducting physical
examinations, not offering referrals, and providing narcotics to patients with drug
addictions. Uranga further testified that in 2000, the Board filed a petition, alleging that
Christensen overprescribed opioids to 28 patients, 23 who received prescriptions for
opioids and benzodiazepines, and that the Idaho Board concurrently filed an immediate
suspension of his prescription-writing authority for intentionally, knowingly, flagrantly,
and repeatedly violating the stipulation and order signed with the Board. Uranga testified
that Christensen did not admit any liability but agreed to surrender his Idaho license to
practice medicine and his ability to prescribe any controlled substances for two years.
Chronic Pain and Opioid Risks
¶26 The State presented extensive expert testimony from Dr. Ajay Wasan,6 Dr. Brett
Bender,7 Dr. Vince Colucci,8 Dr. Patrick Danaher,9
and Dr. Elena Furrow10 as to the nature
of “chronic pain” and the risks and efficacy of treating chronic pain with opioids. Experts
testified that chronic pain is the result of prolonged pain which causes the nervous system
to act in a negative, dysfunctional state and triggers a negative emotional interpretation of
that pain. Experts further testified that opioids cannot serve as the dominant treatment for
chronic pain because they may cause increased pain symptoms, carry a high risk of
addiction, and offer limited effectiveness. Experts also testified that opioids may cause
dangerous interference with electrical conduction signals in the heart and are subject to
build-up in the system, increasing the risk of respiratory depression, sleep apnea, and death,
particularly when taken in combination with benzodiazepines.
Standard of Care
¶27 At trial, the State introduced into evidence the 2009 Montana Board of Medical
Examiners Guidelines for the Use of Controlled Substances for the Treatment of Pain.11
6 Dr. Wasan is a medical doctor, pain specialist, and psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh
7 Dr. Bender treats chronic spine and pain patients at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula.
8 Dr. Colucci is a doctor of pharmacy operating a professional practice at St. Patrick’s Hospital.
9 Dr. Danaher, a doctor of osteopathic medicine (“DO”) licensed to practice in Montana, was
a blind expert in the case and did not review any of the patient medical files prior to testifying.
10 Dr. Furrow is a family physician who operates a training program for addiction and opioid
dependence in Missoula.
11 Dr. Bender testified on cross-examination that these guidelines first became prominent
around 2005 and that he refers to these guidelines when treating chronic pain patients. Dr. Bender
Section I of these guidelines provides in part: “the inappropriate treatment of pain includes
nontreatment, undertreatment, overtreatment, and the continued use of ineffective
treatments[,]” and, “All physicians should become knowledgeable about assessing
patients’ pain and effective methods of pain treatment, as well as statutory requirements
for prescribing controlled substances.” Section I also provides, “[T]he Board expects that
physicians incorporate safeguards into their practices to minimize the potential for the
abuse and diversion of controlled substances.”
¶28 In addition, Dr. Bender, Dr. Danaher, Dr. Ravitz,12 Dr. Furrow, and Dr. Wasan
testified as to standards of practice for physicians when treating chronic pain patients.
These experts identified four primary guidelines to which physicians must adhere when
treating chronic pain patients, including: (1) comprehensive initial assessments through
diagnostic tests and review of medical records to diagnose the underlying cause of pain
and identify risk factors of opioid treatment; (2) providing holistic treatment plans;
(3) careful patient monitoring; and (4) comprehensive documentation.
a. Initial Assessment
¶29 Section II of Montana’s Medical Board guidelines provides a list of criteria for
evaluating a physician’s treatment of pain, requiring physicians to obtain patients’ medical
histories and physical examinations, evaluate and document this information in patients’
also testified that the Center for Disease Control published guidelines in 2016, after Christensen’s
practice closed, stating that physicians should not prescribe more than 90 morphine milligram
equivalents of opioids.
12 Eric Ravitz, DO, is a family physician practicing in Missoula.
medical records, and document current and past treatments for pain, underlying diseases
or medical conditions, and histories of substance abuse. Similarly, Dr. Danaher,
Dr. Bender, and Dr. Wasan testified that in their own practices, prior to administering
medications, patients must undergo comprehensive initial evaluations, which includes
review of past medical records, patient interviews, physical examinations, and imaging
studies such as X-rays, CT scans, CAT scans, and MRIs. Based on this collective
information, treating physicians must identify and accurately diagnose the underlying
cause of chronic pain. Dr. Danaher and Dr. Wasan also testified that patients never receive
opioids the first visit but must first submit to psychological assessments and other referrals
to identify any red flags suggesting the possibility of opioid abuse. If opioids are
determined as a potential source of treatment, patients must undergo an electrocardiogram
(“EKG”) during the initial assessment phase and at least every year to ensure that opioids
will not have a negative effect on heart and respiratory health.
b. Treatment Plan
¶30 Section II of Montana’s Medical Board guidelines further provides that physicians
should create a treatment plan outlining treatment objectives and are encouraged to discuss
with patients the risks of using controlled substances. Physicians are also encouraged to
use a written agreement outlining patient responsibilities in instances which a patient is at
a high risk for substance abuse. Dr. Danaher, Dr. Wasan, and Dr. Bender explained that
this treatment plan must be catered specifically to the etiology of the patient based on
information acquired in the initial assessment. Dr. Wasan testified that the standard of care
for this treatment plan is “multimodal,” requiring a physician to utilize four basic
methodologies—(1) medications, and specifically, non-opioid medications as much as
possible, (2) injections such as nerve blocks13 and prolotherapy,14 (3) physical therapy, and
(4) psychiatric care to combat depression and anxiety.
¶31 Dr. Danaher testified that a treatment plan utilizing only opioid and benzodiazepine
medications does not meet the standard of care for the pain community due to risks of
abuse. Dr. Bender and Dr. Ravitz testified that if the treatment plan involves the use of
opioid medications, physicians must explain instructions and warnings, and utilize a
consent form, known as the “opioid agreement,” detailing the risks and potential side
effects of opioid use. Dr. Wasan stated that this opioid agreement is the “cornerstone” of
good opioid care and is critical to the success of the treatment plan.
¶32 Section II of Montana’s Medical Board guidelines also encourages physicians to
periodically review pain treatment procedures, use objective evidence to monitor
treatments, and routinely consider other therapeutic treatments available, including
referrals for additional evaluations, particularly for patients at risk of opioid misuse.
Similarly, Dr. Wasan, Dr. Danaher, and Dr. Bender all testified that the treatment plan must
be revised at each successive meeting to effectively manage pain and ensure treatment
objectives are being targeted. Once opioids are prescribed, careful monitoring and short
13 Nerve blocks are medications often administered as injections to block pain from nerve
14 Prolotherapy is a procedure in which a natural irritant is injected into the soft tissue of an
injured joint to stimulate the body’s healing response.
interval follow ups are necessary to determine patient responses to medications and identify
any aberrant behavior, utilized through random urine drug screens, pill counts, and
restrictions to filling scripts at only one pharmacy. Dr. Wasan testified that if a patient is
overusing or misusing opioid prescriptions, it may indicate that the medications are not
working effectively to treat pain and are instead being used to feed tolerance or addiction.
Dr. Wasan stated that in such instances, physicians must consider moving away from using
opioid treatments, perform additional assessments, and modify treatment plans.
¶33 Section II of Montana’s Medical Board guidelines further advises physicians to
maintain accurate and complete records of: medical histories; physical examinations;
diagnostic and lab results; evaluations and consultations; treatment objectives; discussions
of risks and benefits of treatments; informed consent obtained; treatments; medications
prescribed, including date, type, dosage, and quantity; instructions and agreements for
using medications; and periodic reviews. Dr. Wasan and Dr. Ravitz testified that it is
within the standards generally accepted in the medical community to maintain
comprehensive summaries in patient files when treating chronic pain patients and is
“crucial” to guide follow-up treatments. Dr. Ravitz explained that in classical medical
documentation, he utilizes S.O.A.P. notes in patient files—an acronym referring to four
benchmarks of documentation: Subjective notes, such as patient descriptions of pain and
symptoms; Objective notes regarding diagnostic tests performed, such as vital signs,
temperature, blood pressure, physical examinations, and imaging results; Assessment,
referring to the physician’s valuation of both subjective and objective findings that
correlates to the physician’s ultimate diagnosis as to the underlying cause of pain; and Plan,
referring to the corresponding treatment plan.
Christensen’s Treatment of Patients
¶34 The jury heard testimony from all nine surviving patients15 regarding treatment
received from Christensen. Dr. Ravitz, Kara Philbrick’s treating physician prior to her
treatment with Christensen, and Jerry Price, Philbrick’s husband, offered testimony on
behalf of Philbrick. Sharon Griffin, Gregg Griffin’s mother, Ryan Marchand,
Christensen’s risk assessment management and addiction counselor, and Dr. Furrow,
Griffin’s former treating physician, testified on behalf of Griffin.
a. Addiction Disclosures
¶35 Cummings, Golden, Jessop, and Gore all testified that they heard about Christensen
by word-of-mouth, that you could “basically get anything,” and he “prescribed out the
medications that you asked for.” Cummings, Golden, Hiscoe, Lieberg, Sutherland, Jessop,
Peterson, and Gore all testified that they were already suffering from drug or opioid
addictions at the time they first saw Christensen. Golden, Hiscoe, Lieberg, Jessop,
Peterson, and Gore did not explicitly disclose their addictions to Christensen during their
15 Erica Cummings, the State’s first witness and a former patient of Christensen, was
prosecuted in a separate case for criminal distribution of dangerous drugs and negligent homicide.
Cummings ultimately pleaded guilty to criminal distribution and criminal endangerment. As part
of her plea agreement with the State, in exchange for dropping the negligent homicide charges,
she agreed to testify against Christensen in this case. During cross-examination, in an effort to
show bias, Christensen’s counsel sought to impeach Cummings based on the penalties she would
have potentially received if she did not agree to testify against Christensen. The State objected.
The court sustained the objection, explaining that the line of questioning “suggest[s] to the jury
what penalties [Christensen] might be facing, and that would be improper.” Christensen’s counsel
was permitted to question her about her actual sentence received based on the plea agreement.
first or subsequent appointments. However, Ryan Marchand testified that he performed a
risk assessment with Lieberg and noted that he “was pretty open about the issues that he’s
had in his past[,]” and “it was pretty obvious that he would continue to struggle, to use
chemicals to deal with emotional issues as they arose . . . .”
¶36 Sutherland testified that she disclosed to Christensen on her initial visit in 2005 that
she was getting opioid withdrawal counseling and in 2012, after moving back to Montana,
testified she told Christensen she was on a Suboxone16 program. Marchand testified that
he performed a risk assessment on Sutherland, that Sutherland was open about her struggles
with addiction, and that she told Marchand that her grandmother had to keep her
medications locked up. Similarly, Cummings testified that she told Christensen during her
first meeting that she was addicted to Methadone. Marchand testified he performed a risk
assessment for Cummings and noted on her assessment form that she posed a “severe risk”
with using opioid therapy.
¶37 Both deceased patients, Griffin and Philbrick, also had long histories with substance
abuse at the time they saw Christensen. Sharon Griffin and Dr. Furrow testified that Griffin
had a long history with Methadone abuse, previously served a stint in a drug rehabilitation
center in Kalispell and was treated with Suboxone therapy for eight years prior to seeing
Christensen because of his Methadone addiction. Dr. Ravitz and Price testified that
Philbrick was an alcoholic, was routinely drinking large quantities of vodka at the time she
16 Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone) is a DEA Schedule III narcotic used to treat opioid
received treatment from Dr. Ravitz, and that in 2006, Philbrick overdosed from prescription
¶38 Price testified that on March 13, 2013, he attended Philbrick’s first and only meeting
with Christensen. Price testified Philbrick told Christensen that she was on Fentanyl,
Zoloft, and Valium, and disclosed in her initial questionnaire that she used alcohol.
Similarly, Dr. Furrow testified that while Griffin first obtained a Methadone prescription
from Christensen on February 22, 2012, Griffin had previously met with Christensen in
2008 to obtain a medical marijuana card and indicated on a questionnaire that he was on
Suboxone treatment. On March 21, 2012, Marchand evaluated Griffin, and noted Griffin
posed a “high risk” for opioid abuse and dependency, was a “high risk” for developing
problems on long-term opioid therapy, and Marchand recommended “high monitoring.”
Marchand’s notes also provided that Griffin was on Suboxone therapy and that Griffin
wished to discuss further Suboxone treatment with Christensen.
b. Legitimate Medical Issues
¶39 Trial testimony established that ten of the patients had legitimate pain at the time of
their first appointments with Christensen. Cummings was suffering from a hip injury;
Peterson, a professional golfer, suffered from a knee problem; Golden reported that she
suffered from rheumatoid arthritis in her hands; Hiscoe suffered from a degenerative bone
disease, neck fusion, a bad shoulder, arthritis in her back, and depression stemming from
her son’s death; Lieberg suffered a back injury from falling down a flight of stairs;
Sutherland was suffering from endometriosis and pain in her right hip; Gore suffered from
a back injury stemming from collegiate football and prior military service; and Marchand
testified that he had a severe spinal cord injury from a mountaineering accident.
¶40 Sharon Griffin testified that Griffin suffered from a wrist injury from a nail gun,
broke an ankle from a construction accident, and previously received an arthroscopic
procedure for a knee injury. Price testified that Philbrick had a back injury from falling off
a horse when she was 12 and a misdiagnosed wrist injury. Only Jessop testified that she
was not in any pain at the time she went to see Christensen but did testify that in 1995 she
suffered an injury to her throat from a barbed wire fence while riding an ATV. Jessop
testified she told Christensen that pain from this incident was the reason for her coming to
c. Initial Assessments
¶41 Many patients reported that meetings with Christensen, including initial
appointments, were no longer than a few minutes to a half hour. Christensen’s preliminary
examinations were very limited in nature or altogether nonexistent. Cummings testified
that he only had her touch her toes and “poked around” her back. She also testified that he
talked briefly about prolotherapy as an option but that she told him she was not interested.
She testified that Christensen did not conduct any urine or blood tests, did not conduct an
EKG, did not discuss the risk of opioid use, and did not recommend addiction or treatment
counseling. Similarly, Peterson testified that he only filled out one piece of paper at his
first visit and listed his cause of pain as “chronic pain” and a family history of
“fibromyalgia.” His first visit was only 10 minutes, and Christensen felt around his knees,
performed no diagnostic tests, and diagnosed him with “chronic pain.” Christensen
purportedly told him he would treat his pain with pain pills, and offered no referrals for
surgery, alternative treatments, and did not discuss chemical dependency.
¶42 Golden testified Christensen performed a cursory exam on her back by pushing on
it and asked if it “hurt.” He told her she should eventually do an MRI but never followed
up on this suggestion. Christensen did not talk about the dangers or risks of opioid use,
ask for medical records, or utilize blood draws or urine screens. Similarly, Hiscoe testified
that Christensen did not perform any real physical exam or any diagnostic tests, discuss
with her any diagnosis or offer alternative treatments, did not provide a chemical
dependency evaluation, and the entire meeting was only 10 minutes.
¶43 Lieberg testified that Christensen met with him for only 20-25 minutes and
performed a basic checkup. Christensen diagnosed Lieberg with “chronic pain,” but only
briefly examined his back and did not perform any imaging tests. Sutherland testified she
received only one X-ray for pneumonia but did not receive one for her hip. Jessop said
that she first saw Robin Rice, Christensen’s physician assistant (“PA”), who explained pain
management to her and told her she needed to get her medical records. She testified no
diagnostic tests or imaging tests were conducted, there was no conversation about chemical
dependency, or a discussion as to a treatment plan. Marchand testified that he brought in
a binder with his past medical records for his first visit and provided a history of surgeries.
He testified that Christensen briefly looked through some of these records and made some
photocopies, but that Christensen did not conduct an in-depth physical examination.
¶44 Gore, a drug addict and drug dealer working in the Bakken oil fields in North
Dakota, testified that he came to his first meeting with a faulty back brace and cane to
facilitate acquisition of prescription drugs. He previously had back surgery at a V.A.
hospital in North Dakota, but he did not obtain his V.A. records until his third appointment.
He was never asked to get a new MRI. Christensen only briefly checked his back and
observed his scar. Price testified that Christensen did not review any of Philbrick’s past
medical records, that he did not sign any of her release records to obtain past medical
records, that there was no physical exam aside from looking at her wrist, and that there was
no blood tests or EKG performed.
¶45 All eleven patients received opioid prescriptions from Christensen on the first visit.
Cummings testified that she left her first visit with Christensen for a prescription of 80 or
90 mg of Methadone per day, as well as a prescription for Dilaudid and Ativan. She
testified that Christensen never discussed with her the risks of combining opioids with
benzodiazepines. Christensen also asked her if she owed anyone Methadone. Peterson
testified that he received a prescription for Dilaudid and Methadone at his first visit, that
he was to take “as needed,” and that Christensen did not explain the side effects of the
prescriptions. Peterson testified that the quantity of his prescriptions went up
“significantly” until he was eventually taking 14 pills per day, and that “I always felt I was
prescribed way too much medication.” Peterson was later prescribed Xanax for
sleeplessness. He testified that Christensen never discussed the risks of taking opioids and
benzodiazepines together or discussed the long-term effects of using these drugs.
Christensen also never set a date for having to stop. Peterson testified that at least once,
Christensen used street slang to reference these drugs and referred to the street value of
¶46 Golden testified that she received a prescription for three Methadone per day on her
first visit and eventually received prescriptions for Xanax. She testified that Christensen
never discussed the dangers or risks of opioid use or the risks of combining Methadone and
Xanax. Hiscoe testified that she received prescriptions for Methadone, Hydromorphone,
and Xanax from Christensen, and eventually also received Hydrocodone. Over time, she
began receiving higher quantities of drugs until she was taking 100 mg of Methadone per
day in addition to Hydromorphone, Dilaudid, and Xanax.
¶47 Lieberg testified that he received Hydrocodone on his first visit. Eventually, he
received injections of prolotherapy on two separate occasions. Lieberg testified he later
received prescriptions for Oxycodone, Fentanyl Patches, and Dilaudid. He testified that he
paid in cash or traded manual labor for prescriptions. Lieberg testified that eventually he
was taking 10 pills of 10 mg Hydrocodone in addition to 6 pills of 30 mg Oxycodone per
day. Sharon Lieberg, a registered nurse for 47 years, testified that Lieberg received
prescriptions on two separate occasions for 300 pills, and another for 180 pills. She
testified that she had never seen prescriptions for drugs of that quantity prescribed before.
Alarmed by these prescriptions, she met with Christensen and told him Lieberg had a
history of drug abuse, bipolar disorder, and an autoimmune disorder. In response,
Christensen prescribed Lieberg Fentanyl to help wean him off his prescriptions. Only days
later, Christensen increased his Fentanyl prescription to 100 mg per day before eventually
prescribing him most of the medications he was taking before.
¶48 Sutherland testified that in 2012, her first visit back to Christensen, she received a
prescription for Methadone in lieu of Suboxone. Sutherland testified that she was
eventually prescribed 1000 Methadone pills per prescription. For approximately nine
months, she was instructed to take up to 600 mg of Methadone, eight to ten Dilaudid, and
six Xanax per day, alongside medication for muscle spasms. Jessop testified that her first
visit she told Christensen what medications worked for her pain and what she needed and
“that’s what I walked out with.” She received prescriptions for Dilaudid, Xanax, Soma,17
and eventually Methadone. She testified that the risks of these drugs were never explained.
She testified at the highest point, she was taking 20 Dilaudid, four Methadone, and five or
six Soma per day, in addition to a Methadone with each Dilaudid, plus a Xanax to go to
bed. She also testified that on two separate occasions she received Adderall pills directly
¶49 Gore testified that he received Dilaudid on his first meeting with Christensen even
though it was not requested. Eventually he was prescribed Xanax and Methadone.
Marchand testified that he was prescribed Methadone and Dilaudid on his first visit with
Christensen. He testified his Methadone and Dilaudid prescriptions were increased over
time and eventually was also prescribed Xanax. Marchand said that Christensen did not
discuss any risks associated with combining Xanax with opioids like Methadone and
Dilaudid. Marchand was also eventually prescribed Adderall after he told Christensen he
was having trouble staying awake and focusing due to his Methadone prescription.
17 Soma (carisoprodol) is used as a muscle relaxant.
¶50 Price testified that at her first appointment, Philbrick asked Christensen for a
prescription for Methadone at a specific amount and her request was granted. He also
prescribed Philbrick Dilaudid for “breakthrough pain”18 and a medical marijuana
certificate. Dr. Ravitz testified Christensen’s prescription indicated that Philbrick was
supposed to increase her Methadone dosage from 30 mg to 90 mg per day over a six-day
period. Dr. Ravitz testified that he had prescribed Philbrick Fentanyl only days earlier.
Price testified that Christensen provided a four-day taper off the Fentanyl. Price also
testified that they went to the Osco drug pharmacy and had a hard time filling the
Methadone prescription. Price testified that on March 15, 2013, two days later, he found
¶51 Dr. Furrow testified that Griffin received Methadone from Christensen on his first
visit. She testified that Christensen did not contact her regarding Griffin’s treatment. On
March 2, 2012, Griffin’s second visit with Christensen, he received a prescription for 200
pills of Methadone in addition to Xanax and was to take 60 or 70 mg of Methadone per
day. On March 30, 2012, Griffin attended Big Creek Family Medicine; he did not have an
actual appointment but obtained a refill of a prescription for 200 Methadone pills. Sharon
Griffin testified that on April 2, 2012, she found Griffin dead from a drug overdose.
¶52 Patient testimony also reflected that Christensen’s follow-up appointments were
consistently brief, that Christensen rarely conducted follow-up tests or assessments, and
18 Dr. Colucci testified that breakthrough pain refers to unexpected flare ups of pain that are
often treated with short-acting opioids like Dilaudid.
often only refilled prescriptions. Cummings testified that Christensen never again
performed any physical exams or diagnostic tests, never discussed goals to address her
underlying hip pain, or a timeline for weaning off opioids. She testified that once
Christensen offered her prolotherapy, but she declined. She testified that once Christensen
performed a pill count and another time a urine test, which she failed for having
unprescribed Adderall in her system. Christensen responded by providing her a
prescription for Adderall. Cummings also testified that on another occasion she was
required to meet with Marchand after a neighbor called Christensen and told him she was
selling her pills. Christensen told her he did not have any reason for concern and did not
make changes to her prescriptions. He also recommended Cummings only fill her
prescriptions at a pharmacy in Corvallis, Montana, because it was the only pharmacy that
would fill his prescriptions. Eventually she stopped seeing Christensen because she was
arrested for criminal distribution of dangerous drugs and negligent homicide.
¶53 Peterson testified that follow-up visits with Christensen were shorter each time, that
there were no additional physical exams or evaluations, and that follow-up appointments
were used only to refill his prescriptions. He testified that Christensen never discussed a
timeline to discontinue opioid treatment. He testified he was never subject to pill counts,
urinalysis tests, and only once received an EKG, but did engage in physical therapy
treatments at Christensen’s office on two occasions. Peterson stated that within four weeks
of treatment he believed he was addicted to opioids and feared overdosing. He testified he
asked Christensen if he could begin to taper off opioids, but Christensen responded, “we
need to continue treatment as we are doing now.” Peterson entered a drug rehabilitation
program after Christensen’s practice shut down.
¶54 Similarly, Golden testified Christensen never discussed alternatives to opioids, did
not request past medical records, perform blood draws, or utilize urine tests, and only once
performed an EKG. She testified that on one occasion Christensen sent a letter stating he
was going to terminate her treatment contract because she was being reported to authorities
for abusing opioids. She testified she appeared at a scheduled visit anyway and continued
to see Christensen for another year with no change in her prescriptions. She also met once
with a counselor in his practice for an evaluation but testified that Christensen told her
everything seemed good and he would not modify her prescriptions. Eventually, Golden
moved to Oregon to quit opioids and began using methamphetamine to cope with
¶55 Hiscoe testified that her follow-up appoints were only five to ten minutes, that
Christensen never again performed any physical exams, attempted to treat her underlying
condition, discussed goals or plans for treatment, or discussed the risks of using opioids
while suffering from depression. She testified that once she asked Christensen as to
whether she should be concerned about mixing opioids with benzodiazepines. Christensen
told her that it was mostly a concern for patients not used to taking those kinds of
medications. She also testified her drug addiction was most severe when she was seeing
Christensen and that on multiple occasions, her children found her unconscious and unable
to function, but that she did not disclose these events to Christensen.
¶56 Lieberg testified that Christensen never discussed any options for alternative
treatments. Subsequent visits were only 20 minutes each time, there were no other physical
exams other than prolotherapy, and he was never referred to any specialists. Lieberg
testified that there was once a discussion about obtaining a chemical dependency
evaluation, which he received, but the results were never discussed. He stated that on
several occasions he could not fill his prescriptions because the number of pills was too
high. Lieberg’s mother testified that eventually, Lieberg tried to commit suicide. She
responded by reporting Christensen to the DEA.
¶57 Sutherland testified that she once inquired as to her drug tolerance, and Christensen
responded only that her tolerance was “pretty high.” She was also asked to see a chemical
dependency counselor in his office, but the results were never discussed. She stated that
she was never provided a recommendation for addiction treatment or counseling. She also
stated that only the Corvallis pharmacy would fill her prescriptions. Eventually she quit
seeing Christensen when Child Protective Services took away her daughter “because of the
state that I was in.”
¶58 Jessop testified that she never had any subsequent physical exams and that her
prescriptions were simply refilled every two weeks. She testified that there was no other
treatment plan other than how many pills per day she was to take and that there was never
any discussion as to alternative forms of treatment or addiction counseling. She also stated
that only one urinalysis test was conducted and there was never a discussion about the
results. She testified that on multiple occasions she told Christensen her medications were
lost, stolen, or dropped in the toilet, and that he never documented the instances or modified
her prescriptions. She also testified it was evident that she was a drug addict, that she was
taking heroin and methamphetamine on the side, and that she lost nearly 40 pounds
throughout the course of her treatment from Christensen. She stopped seeing Christensen
in 2012 after she was arrested for stealing one of Christensen’s prescription pads and was
forging his signature to obtain prescription drugs.
¶59 Gore testified that on subsequent visits he was never asked to get a new MRI for his
back. He stated that it became difficult to fill his prescriptions because of the quantity of
drugs he was receiving. Eventually, to obtain a three-month prescription, Gore testified
that he was required to see an addiction counselor and complete a urinalysis test. He used
someone else’s urine to pass the test. He was also given two different pill counts for
Dilaudid and Roxicet.19
He stated that he was never given another physical exam, urine
test, or pill count. He also stated that Christensen occasionally used street slang to refer to
the names and prices of the drugs he was administered.
¶60 Marchand testified that over two years, Christensen never conducted additional
physical exams other than one instance following a slip and fall accident at another
employer. Marchand testified that he would receive prescriptions for three months at a
time, and at each appointment, Christensen would only refill his prescriptions. He testified
that prescriptions were just ready at the front desk or he would pass them along directly
“when he had time to write them out.” Marchand testified that eventually he believed he
was addicted to opioids and that he could not function safely.
19 Roxicet (Oxycodone and Acetaminophen) is a combination of opioid and non-opioid pain
Expert Testimony Regarding Christensen’s Treatment Practices
¶61 Dr Ravitz, Dr. Bender, Dr. Furrow, and Dr. Wasan each reviewed some or all the
patient medical files and offered testimony as to Christensen’s treatment in relation to the
standard of care. Dr. Wasan testified that Christensen’s treatment of all nine surviving
patients—Cummings, Peterson, Hiscoe, Golden, Sutherland, Lieberg, Jessop, Gore, and
Marchand—fell below or far below the accepted standards of practice recognized in the
medical community because Christensen always prescribed high dose opioids, often in
conjunction with benzodiazepines, on the very first visit; Christensen administered these
prescriptions without proper assessments, review of existing medical files, referrals to
properly diagnose underlying conditions, consideration of non-opioid treatments, or
comprehensive treatment plans; and Christensen routinely failed to monitor patients’ use
of heavy dose prescriptions through adequate pill counts or blood or urine tests despite the
presence of red flags. Dr. Wasan noted these red flags included Hiscoe’s depression,
anxiety, and PTSD; Lieberg’s history of opioid abuse and Cummings’ addiction history
disclosures, both of which Dr. Wasan described as the “equivalent of giving someone a
loaded gun”; track marks on Jessop’s arms from intravenous drug use; patients’ misuse of
prescriptions and reports of lost or stolen prescriptions; and Gore’s back brace and crutch,
which he opined suggested exaggerating or faking symptoms.
¶62 Experts also testified that Christensen’s treatment of Philbrick and Griffin did not
meet the standards of care in the medical community. Dr. Ravitz testified that
Christensen’s medical files for Philbrick did not adhere to the standards expected in the
medical community and would not achieve a passing grade for a second-year medical
student. Dr. Ravitz further testified there was no documented evidence Christensen
performed a full assessment on Philbrick because there was no review of her medical
history, evidence of a physical exam, imaging tests, or evidence of a treatment plan.
Dr. Ravitz and Dr. Wasan testified that Christensen’s increase of Philbrick’s Methadone
prescription to 90 mg per day over a six-day period fell well below the standard of care
because Philbrick had a history of addiction and alcohol abuse and there were no written
warnings, specific instructions to discontinue Fentanyl, short-interval follow ups, or efforts
to obtain past medical files.
¶63 Dr. Furrow and Dr. Wasan reviewed Christensen’s medical file for Gregg Griffin
and testified that there was not an acceptable reason to prescribe Griffin high-dose opioids
and benzodiazepines at the beginning of treatment when Griffin had successfully used
Suboxone therapy for eight years. Both experts testified this prescription was “dangerous,”
undermined Griffin’s addiction treatment, and put him at a severe risk of overdose or
addiction. Dr. Furrow testified that Christensen’s medical file did not have any
documentation or offer any changes to his prescriptions based on Marchand’s assessment,
which placed Griffin at a “high risk” for abuse. Dr. Furrow further testified there was no
documentation regarding advice, suggestions, warnings, or discussions with Griffin
concerning his opioid medication, and that Christensen’s limited documentation did not
conform to the standard of care in the medical community.
¶64 Christensen presented expert testimony from Dr. Forrest Tennant, a Los Angeles
physician and doctor of public health who operates a clinic for intractable pain patients.
Dr. Tennant testified that from 2001 until 2016, known as the “Decade of Pain,” federal
efforts sought to encourage every physician and family doctor to engage in widespread
opioid prescriptions to treat pain. Dr. Tennant testified that during this period, there was
no maximum limit of opioids that could be prescribed, that opioids were considered a first
line of defense to treat chronic pain, that doctors did not need to provide a diagnosis before
prescribing opioids, and dosages were between the physician and patient to determine.
Dr. Tennant further testified that until 2015 or 2016, the prevailing medical opinion was
that it was okay to prescribe benzodiazepines and opioids together.
¶65 Dr. Tennant also reviewed all eleven of the patient files in the case and opined as to
whether Christensen was operating within the course of a professional practice and whether
Christensen was prescribing opioids for a legitimate medical purpose. He testified that
20 Prior to Christensen’s witnesses testifying, the State notified the court as to issues regarding
the scope of Christensen’s lay witness testimony in relation to Gayle Christensen, Christensen’s
wife and a physical therapist and business manager of Christensen’s practice, and Francie Paddock,
a receptionist and bookkeeper in Christensen’s practice from 2010 to 2012. Christensen sought to
elicit testimony from Gayle and Paddock regarding how Christensen’s practice operated,
availability of alternative pain management modalities, and pricing of treatment to suggest
Christensen was acting within the course of a professional practice. The State objected to the
relevance of this potential line of questioning. The court sustained the objection, stating that
anything that these witnesses observed, experienced, or witnessed in regards to the alleged victims
or that was applicable to all patients during the period they were treated was permissible and
relevant evidence, but opinion evidence as to whether or not Christensen was a “good doctor” and
acting in the course of his practice was too broad and impermissible. Christensen’s counsel argued
that this testimony should be admitted because it concerned an element of an affirmative defense—
that Christensen was at all times acting within the course of a professional practice—and stated
that this limiting instruction would “substantially gut the defense” and constituted reversible error.
Christensen’s medical charts were about “60 to 70 percent there” relative to what was
required, but that it did not take him outside the course of a professional practice even
though he found them “unsatisfactory.” He testified that the Montana standards, which are
based on the National Federation of Medical Board21 standards, are “very vague” and
Christensen had great latitude to treat these patients. He also testified that the eleven patient
cases were “very complex,” that Christensen “did what he thought was right,” and that
Christensen was operating within the standard of practice at the time. However,
Dr. Tennant also testified that Christensen was “way over his head” and “totally
unqualified,” that his care was “atrocious” and “laughable” based on present standards, and
that his “setting and style were never going to allow the kind of care that would be
appropriate in the family practice setting.”
¶66 Christensen also testified in his defense. Christensen explained that his philosophy
for treating chronic pain patients was to “commit to them for as long as you are going to
be in practice.” He testified that he often provided a list of medications to patients to
familiarize them with options and prices because many patients could not afford
comprehensive treatment. He also testified that he used lists of drugs and listened to patient
requests for certain drugs because he “subscribe[d] very much to the idea that if patients
have knowledge of what does or doesn’t work for them, that’s an appropriate starting
place.” Christensen explained that while patients asking for certain drugs could be
21 The Federation of State Medical Boards (“FSMB”) is a national non-profit organization
representing 71 state medical and osteopathic boards of the United States and its territories. The
FSMB licenses physicians, investigates complaints, disciplines medical practitioners violating the
law, conducts evaluations, and facilitates physician rehabilitation.
considered a red flag, he was “more than willing to put aside that issue of whether the
patient had a preference by allowing a discussion of what had been used in the past.”
¶67 Christensen also testified that when the prescription drug registry22 became
available in Montana, he did not keep records of how many times he utilized the database.
He testified that his former P.A., Robin Rice, was “certainly more inclined to want the
reassurance that there wasn’t doctor shopping, multiple prescribers involved.” Christensen
also testified that when treating Sutherland, she admitted to him that “she had had a lot of
use of street drugs,” and “[s]he sought out whatever she could ger her hands on to treat the
pain.” He testified that this was a “red flag” but that it did not stop him from prescribing
opioids to her because “the underpinning idea behind management of chronic pain as a
progressive disorder is that if you can adequately control the pain, you can change the
outcome.” Christensen further testified that his treatment as to Sutherland was based
“entirely on that level of communication with the patient.” He stated that he was concerned
about the amount of opioids and medications he was prescribing to her but did not stop
prescribing Methadone because “at every point of making the decision whether I would
continue to use what I was using . . . there was a report that she was gaining, incrementally,
more and more ability to be on her feet . . . .”
22 The Montana Prescription Drug Registry is an online tool used to provide a list of controlled
substance prescriptions to health care providers to improve patient care and safety and identify
potential misuse, abuse, and/or diversion of controlled substances. In 2011, the Montana
Legislature authorized the use of The Montana Prescription Drug Registry, §§ 37-7-1501 through
1515, MCA. This registry became functional in 2012.
¶68 On cross-examination, Christensen was questioned regarding his treatment of some
of his patients that overdosed in Idaho. Christensen stated that, “I was accused of having
a role in the death of several patients, most of whom were not under my care when they
died.” He also stated that after his second Board stipulation in Idaho, “I had 10 years to
reevaluate my prescription writing practices.” The State asked Christensen whether he had
the opportunity to reevaluate his prescription writing practices following the death of
Griffin. Christensen responded, “The outcome of any patient I treat needs to be taken into
account in terms of how I continue to treat other patients in a similar manner.” Finally,
Christensen admitted that he previously told the Task Force during the beginning of the
investigation in this case that “85 percent” of the pharmacies in the area would not fill his
¶69 The State provided testimony from Mary Leonard, an investigator and subsequently
an associate director for the Idaho Board of Medicine. Leonard was assigned Christensen’s
case in 1999. Leonard testified that it was “not true” that most of the patients whom
Christensen treated in Idaho who died from overdoses were not under his care at that time.
Leonard testified that she received the information from these deaths, reviewed patient
medical records, pharmacy printouts, information from law enforcement, and coroners’
reports that showed Christensen’s names on pill bottles found within residences or place
of death of these patients.23
Of the five overdose deaths of which Christensen was notified
23 At trial, Christensen’s counsel objected to this testimony as inadmissible hearsay.
of in the disciplinary proceeding, Leonard testified that all five were under his medical care
and records reflect he prescribed all of them controlled substances. Leonard also testified
that all five of these patients were on a combination of opioids and benzodiazepines and
died from an overdose of those prescriptions.
¶70 Following Leonard’s testimony, Christensen’s counsel requested that the court have
a M. R. Evid. 404(b) instruction read as part of the final instructions. The State did not
object and the court included Instruction No. 28, Evidence of Other Acts, which addressed
the limited purpose for which the jury could use Christensen’s past conduct in Idaho.
¶71 During closing argument, the State referenced the Montana standards of practice,
stating that physicians do not meet these standards by “handing them opioids the first time
and saying there, I treated you.” The State also explained that in determining whether
Christensen could be convicted for criminal distribution, “It’s not about a physical
building. It’s about are you conducting yourself as a part of the professional practice.”
The State also opined that Christensen “is not just like all the [practitioners in Montana],
because all the others were practicing medicine[.]” The State offered that “The only
[patients] who went to [Christensen] because others wouldn’t—or they didn’t want to keep
going to the others, are the addicts, because the people doing it right made it too tough.”
¶72 The State further explained that the Idaho Board investigations were relevant
because “It’s the notice [Christensen] was put on. It’s what he learned and did not
change[,]” and “He was put on notice, if you do this people die. He did nothing to change.
He did it again. People died. It’s that simple.” The State told the jury, “What I’m asking
you is to say to Dr. Christensen you cannot do that in Idaho, put your blinders on, come
over here in Montana, ignore everything you should have learned and do the same thing
here. Tell him that is criminal. It fits every definition. That is criminal.”
¶73 Prior to administering jury instructions, Christensen’s counsel objected to the
language in the State’s instruction as to criminal distribution, arguing that there was
nothing in the instruction about a nationwide standard of care, that the professional practice
exemption in § 45-9-101(6), MCA, must be read strictly such that Christensen may not be
prosecuted under the statute, and the State must at least follow Feingold if the case is to be
“legally viable” because Montana law does not prohibit Christensen’s conduct.
¶74 The final jury instructions included Instruction No. 23, Criminal Distribution of
Dangerous Drugs, which stated:
[T]o convict a Defendant of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs, for
each separate count the State must prove the following elements: (1) that the
Defendant prescribed a dangerous drug to another; and (2) that the Defendant
acted purposely or knowingly; and (3) the professional practice exemption
does not apply to the Defendant’s conduct. If you find from your
consideration of the evidence that each of these elements have been proved
beyond a reasonable doubt, then you should find the Defendant guilty.
¶75 Jury Instruction No. 24 articulated the professional practice exemption:
A practitioner who prescribes a dangerous drug to a patient is distributing
that dangerous drug. However, a practitioner is exempt from prosecution
and may not be convicted of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs if he
delivers that prescription while acting in the course of a professional practice.
The exemption does not apply if a practitioner purposely or knowingly
prescribes a dangerous drug for no legitimate medical purpose while acting
outside of the regular course of a professional practice.
You are not required to determine if any patient receiving a prescription had
a legitimate medical condition. Rather, you must determine whether the
Defendant had a legitimate medical purpose within the regular course of a
professional practice when he delivered the particular prescription being
The legitimacy of the “medical purpose” is not determined merely by a
practitioner’s sincere intent towards his patient. Instead, you are to determine
from the evidence whether the Defendant made an honest effort to prescribe
for a patient’s condition in accordance with the standard of medical practice,
if any, that was generally recognized and accepted in the State of Montana
during the time period in which the prescription occurred.
Evidence in this case offered regarding the applicable standard of medical
practice was not offered to establish malpractice, but rather to support the
State’s claim that there was an absence of any legitimate medical purpose. It
is up to you as jurors to decide if the State has proven beyond a reasonable
doubt the absence of any legitimate medical purpose.
While a practitioner may not be convicted of criminal distribution of
dangerous drugs based on mere negligence, practitioners who act outside the
regular course of professional practice by purposely or knowingly
prescribing dangerous drugs for no legitimate medical purpose are not
entitled to this exemption, and may be prosecuted for and convicted of
criminal distribution of dangerous drugs in accord with all the instructions
given to you.
¶76 Jury Instruction No. 28, “Evidence of Other Acts,” was also offered to instruct the
jury as to the proper use of Christensen’s past conduct in Idaho introduced at trial. This
The State has offered evidence that the Defendant at another time engaged in
wrongs or acts. That evidence was not admitted to prove the character of the
Defendant or to show he acted in conformity therewith. The only purpose of
admitting that evidence was to show knowledge, mental state, and/or absence
of mistake or accident. You may not use that evidence for any other purpose.
¶77 The jury returned a verdict finding Christensen guilty of all eleven counts of
Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs.
¶78 We first address the host of constitutional issues Christensen raises on appeal.
Christensen argues that by admitting evidence of the underlying conduct of treatment of
Idaho patients at trial, the court violated his constitutional protections against double
jeopardy and confrontation clause rights. Absent plain error, allegations that constitutional
rights have been violated cannot be raised for the first time on appeal. State v. Minez, 2004
MT 115, ¶ 30, 321 Mont. 148, 89 P.3d 966. Moreover, acquiescence in the alleged error
negates the right of objecting to it. State v. Brown, 1999 MT 339, ¶ 19, 297 Mont. 427,
993 P.2d 672. Christensen did not object before trial or at trial to Uranga’s or Leonard’s
testimony on constitutional grounds regarding the “thumbnail” sketches of allegations
against Christensen in the Idaho Board cases, but only sought to exclude such testimony as
irrelevant or as inadmissible hearsay. Having abandoned his constitutional objections at
trial, Christensen is precluded from raising these issues on appeal.
¶79 Christensen further raises a prosecutorial misconduct claim for the first time on
appeal, arguing that the State misled the jury by suggesting in closing argument that
Christensen was the definitive cause of drug overdose deaths in Idaho. Criminal
defendants are entitled to a constitutional right to a fair trial by jury. State v. Lawrence,
2016 MT 346, ¶ 13, 386 Mont. 86, 385 P.3d 968 (internal quotations and citations omitted);
U.S. Const. amend. VI; Mont. Const. art. II, § 24. We do not presume prejudice from the
alleged misconduct; rather, the defendant must demonstrate that the alleged misconduct
violated his substantial rights. Lawrence, ¶ 13. Moreover, this Court does not isolate the
challenged comments upon review but considers the challenged comments in the context
of the trial and the closing argument as a whole. Lawrence, ¶ 13.
¶80 Christensen refers to the State’s comments in closing argument in isolation, ignoring
the greater context in which these comments were presented. Evidence of Christensen’s
past conduct in Idaho was specifically used to demonstrate that Christensen was on
“notice,” i.e., that because he was stripped of his medical and DEA licenses in Idaho
following overdose deaths of patients, he was thus aware that his prescribing practices were
outside the course of a professional practice and that prescribing opioids in large quantities
without adequate tests, referrals, and follow-ups could risk bodily harm or death.
¶81 The State appropriately referenced the purpose of this evidence in opening
statements—explaining that Christensen did not admit liability, and in closing argument—
stating that when “the Defendant moved his practice to Florence Montana . . . he knew the
dangerous risks to his patients’ lives and health to overprescribing opiates[,]” and “He was
put on notice that if you do this, your patients die.” (Emphasis added.) The court, upon
Christensen’s request, further instructed the jury as to the limited purpose of this evidence,
providing Instruction No. 28, which explained that “The Defendant is not being tried for
those other wrongs or acts[,]” and “The only purpose of admitting that evidence was to
show knowledge, mental state, and/or absence of mistake or accident.” Considering the
trial as a whole, we find the State did not commit prosecutorial misconduct such that it
deprived Christensen of a fair trial.
¶82 Christensen also argues that the District Court denied him of his constitutional right
to present a complete defense because (1) it excluded the testimony of 28 of his former
patient witnesses when it granted the State’s motion in limine, (2) barred testimony at trial
from Gayle Christensen and Francie Paddock who would have testified as to Christensen’s
general day-to-day practice, and (3) restricted Christensen’s cross-examination of Erica
¶83 A defendant in a criminal trial has a constitutional right to a meaningful opportunity
to present a complete defense. State v. Glick, 2009 MT 44, ¶ 29, 349 Mont. 277, 203 P.3d
796. However, this right is not absolute; state rules excluding evidence from criminal trials
do not abridge a defendant’s right to present a defense so long as the rule is not arbitrary
or disproportionate to the purpose it is designed to serve. State v. Hauer, 2012 MT 120,
¶ 24, 365 Mont. 184, 279 P.3d 149; United States v. Scheffer, 523 U.S. 303, 308, 118 S. Ct.
1261, 1264 (1998). A district court has broad discretion when determining the relevance
and admissibility of evidence. State v. Daniels, 2011 MT 278, ¶ 11, 362 Mont. 426, 265
P.3d 623. Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible. M. R. Evid. 402.
¶84 Christensen argues that the testimony of his 28 former patients was relevant to his
affirmative defense that he was prescribing drugs in the course of a professional practice,
and that this evidence was admissible pursuant to M. R. Evid. 406, Habit or Routine
Practice. Christensen asserts these patients would have provided a corrective impression
of his professional practice as a whole, including an absence of a criminal scheme to
distribute controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose.
¶85 M. R. Evid. 406(b) provides, “Evidence of habit or of routine practice . . . is relevant
to prove that conduct on a particular occasion was in conformity with the habit or routine
practice.” This case is not a civil medical malpractice case, however, but a criminal trial,
the charges which allege that Christensen was not acting in the course of his professional
practice when he was treating the eleven patients in question. Whether the proposed
testimony of former patients is admissible therefore rests on whether this testimony was
relevant to his treatment of the eleven identified patients.
¶86 Christensen conceded that none of these former patients were present when he
treated or prescribed dangerous drugs to the eleven charged patients. Thus, Christensen
was not seeking to use former patient testimony to prove that his conduct when treating
and prescribing to the eleven patients in this case conformed with his routine practice, but
only that his treatment of these patients was an error and therefore he did not possess the
criminal intent necessary to be prosecuted. Accordingly, their testimony was irrelevant as
to whether Christensen acted in the course of a professional practice when treating the
patients here. The District Court did not err in granting the State’s motion in limine to
exclude this former patient testimony.
¶87 Likewise, the District Court did not err in excluding testimony from Gayle
Christensen and Francie Paddock as to Christensen’s general day-to-day practice. Whether
Christensen “generally” operated in the course of a professional practice is not relevant to
the determination as to whether Christensen operated in the course of a professional
practice as to the eleven charged patients. Because Gayle and Paddock were not testifying
as to Christensen’s treatments with regards to these patients, their offered testimony was
irrelevant, and therefore, inadmissible. M. R. Evid. 401, 402.
¶88 Christensen further asserts that his Confrontation Clause rights were violated
because he was not allowed to question Cummings on cross-examination as to the benefits
she received under the plea bargain in her own criminal trial, in which the State agreed to
drop her negligent homicide charges in exchange for her testifying against Christensen in
the present case.
¶89 The Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, applicable to state prosecution via
the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, guarantees a criminal
defendant the right “to be confronted with the witness against him.” U.S. Const. Amends.
VI, XIV; Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 42, 124 S. Ct. 1254, 1259 (2004). The
main purpose of confrontation is to secure for the opponent the opportunity to
cross-examine and expose a witness’s motivation in testifying. State v. Nelson, 2002 MT
122, ¶ 14, 310 Mont. 71, 48 P.3d 739. However, a trial court retains broad discretion to
limit the scope of cross-examination to those issues it determines are relevant to the trial.
State v. Beavers, 1999 MT 260, ¶ 36, 296 Mont. 340, 987 P.2d 371. Limiting the scope of
cross-examination does not necessarily violate a defendant’s right to confront an adverse
witness; the Confrontation Clause guarantees an “opportunity” for effective
cross-examination, not cross-examination that is effective in whatever way or to whatever
extent the defendant desires. Nelson, ¶ 19.
¶90 At trial, Christensen did not object to violations of his due process and confrontation
rights, but only objected as to state law evidentiary issue. And Christensen agreed to a
stipulation pretrial that inferences of potential sentences Christensen faced for charges in
the present case could not be presented to the jury. Christensen acquiesced to any error by
the trial court in limiting the cross-examination of Cummings. Christensen’s constitutional
due process and confrontation rights are thus unpreserved and may not be challenged on
appeal. See State v. Reim, 2014 MT 108, ¶¶ 28-29, 374 Mont. 487, 323 P.3d 880.
¶91 Moreover, Christensen was provided an ample opportunity to cross-examine
Cummings and explore the benefit she received under the plea agreement. Cummings
already pleaded guilty to her crimes and had already been sentenced at the time she
testified. Whatever sentence she could have received for other charges was irrelevant. The
District Court did not err in restricting Christensen’s cross-examination of Cummings.
¶92 Lastly, Christensen argues that the plain language of Montana’s criminal
distribution statute, § 45-9-101, MCA, prohibits Christensen from being prosecuted under
Montana law, and broadening its meaning violates his constitutional due process rights.
Christensen argues that he cannot be prosecuted for criminal distribution of dangerous
drugs under Montana law because (1) § 45-9-101, MCA, does not prohibit “prescribing”
of dangerous drugs because “prescribing” does not fit within the plain meaning of “selling,
bartering, exchanging, or giving away,” and (2), the professional practice exemption in
subsection (6) of the statute prevents Christensen from being prosecuted under Montana
¶93 Section 45-9-101(1), MCA, provides in part, “a person commits the offense of
criminal distribution of dangerous drugs if the person sells, barters, exchanges, gives away,
or offers to sell, barter, exchange, or give away any dangerous drug, as defined in
50-32-101.” Dangerous drugs include “a drug, substance, or immediate precursor in
Schedules I through V . . . .” Section 50-32-101(6), MCA. Section 45-9-101(6), MCA,
provides that “Practitioners, as defined in 50-32-101, and agents under their supervision
acting in the course of a professional practice are exempt from this section.” A practitioner
includes a “physician . . . or other person licensed, registered, or otherwise permitted to
distribute, dispense . . . or to administer a dangerous drug in the course of professional
practice or research in this state[.]” Section 50-32-101(24)(a), MCA.
¶94 It is undisputed that Christensen was prescribing dangerous drugs, including
Schedule II opioids and Schedule IV benzodiazepines, to patients. It is further undisputed
that at the time the alleged offenses occurred, Christensen wrote all prescriptions at his
office, employed professional staff, and maintained a Montana medical license and DEA
license. Whether Christensen may be prosecuted and convicted under the statute therefore
rests on whether (1) “prescribing” dangerous drugs constitutes “selling, bartering,
exchanging, or giving away,” and (2) he was operating outside the course of a professional
practice at the time he prescribed these controlled substances.
¶95 “In the construction of a statute, the office of the judge is simply to ascertain and
declare what is in terms or in substance contained therein, not to insert what has been
omitted or to omit what has been inserted.” City of Missoula v. Fox, 2019 MT 250, ¶ 18,
397 Mont. 388, 450 P.3d 898. When interpreting a statute, this Court’s objective is to
implement the objectives the Legislature sought to achieve. Bullock v. Fox, 2019 MT 50,
¶ 52, 395 Mont. 35, 435 P.3d 1187. The starting point for interpreting a statute is the
language of the statute itself. Bullock, ¶ 52. If the intent of the Legislature can be
determined from the plain meaning of the words used in the statute, the plain meaning
controls. Mont. Vending, Inc. v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 2003 MT 282, ¶ 21, 318 Mont. 1,
78 P.3d 499. Where the Legislature has not defined a statutory term, we consider the term
to have its plain and ordinary meaning, and may consider dictionary definitions, prior case
law, and the larger statutory scheme in which the term appears. State v. Alpine Aviation,
Inc., 2016 MT 283, ¶ 11, 385 Mont. 282, 384 P.3d 1035; Giacomelli v. Scottsdale Ins. Co.,
2009 MT 418, ¶ 18, 354 Mont. 15, 221 P.3d 666. This Court will give effect to all
provisions of the statute if possible. Bullock, ¶ 53.
¶96 The Montana Legislature has not provided a definition as to “selling, bartering,
exchanging, or giving away.” Accordingly, we consider these terms to have their plain and
ordinary meaning. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “exchange” as “The act of transferring
interests, each in consideration for the other.” Exchange, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th
ed. 2019). We find that “prescribing” of dangerous drugs fits squarely within the definition
of exchange. In exchange for payment, Christensen routinely prescribed dangerous drugs
to the eleven named patients in this case.24
Accordingly, § 45-9-101(1), MCA, does not
prohibit Christensen from being prosecuted for prescribing dangerous drugs so long as he
is acting outside the course of his professional practice.
¶97 Further, § 45-9-101(6), MCA, does not offer a blanket exemption for physicians
from prosecution under the statute, but only does so in the instance in which a physician is
“acting in the course of a professional practice.” Logically, a physician not acting within
the course of a professional practice may be prosecuted under Montana’s statute.
Naturally, if the Montana Legislature had intended physicians to be exempt from the
24 While Christensen also relies on other state court interpretations of similar statutes in support
of his argument, none of these statutes possess identical language to Montana’s criminal
distribution statute. Nor do out-of-state decisions possess any binding authority on this Court or
provide insight as to the intent of Montana’s Legislature when crafting statutory language.
statute, it would have provided a wholesale exception rather than create subsection (6). If
this Court were to adopt Christensen’s narrow reading of the statute, it would render
subsection (6) meaningless. See State v. Heath, 2004 MT 126, ¶ 31, 321 Mont. 280, 90
P.3d 426 (“We are required to avoid any statutory interpretation that renders any sections
of the statute superfluous and does not give effect to all the words used.” (citation omitted)).
¶98 Here, the State did not attempt to argue that Christensen could be prosecuted despite
acting in the course of a professional practice or challenge Christensen’s assertion that he
maintained an office or employed professional staff when issuing prescriptions. Rather,
the State alleged that Christensen was acting outside the course of a professional practice
with regard to the eleven named patients because he eschewed the use of appropriate
documentation, assessments, tests, follow-ups, referrals, and provided dangerous drugs in
obscene quantities such that Christensen was not acting like a physician at all but instead
was acting as a “drug pusher.” Accordingly, under the plain meaning of § 45-9-101, MCA,
Christensen may be prosecuted for criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
¶99 Relatedly, Christensen argues that the State inappropriately relied on a federal
distribution statute, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a), and federal case law in support of its interpretation
of § 45-9-101, MCA, when charging Christensen, arguing that the federal statute and case
law is substantially different than Montana’s criminal distribution statute. We disagree.
¶100 The Federal Uniform Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) provides, “it shall be
unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally—(1) to manufacture, distribute, or
dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled
substance.” 21 U.S.C. § 841(a). Federal courts have routinely held that physicians and
practitioners remain subject to criminal prosecution under § 841 when their activities fall
“outside the usual course of a professional practice.” United States v. Moore, 423 U.S. 122,
124, 96 S. Ct. 335, 337 (1975); United States v. Larson, 507 F.2d 385, 388 (9th Cir. 1974);
United States v. Mackay, 715 F.3d 807, 824-25 (10th Cir. 2013).
¶101 Indeed, in enacting Montana’s drug legislation, the Montana Legislature has long
relied on the CSA for guidance. See State ex rel. Lance v. Dist. Court, 168 Mont. 297,
299-300, 542 P.2d 1211, 1212-13 (1975); State v. Pirello, 2012 MT 155, ¶¶ 14-18, 365
Mont. 399, 282 P.3d 662. Like the CSA and federal case law, § 45-9-101(6), MCA, does
not generally exempt physicians merely because they have maintained a license to
prescribe prescription drugs or conduct their practice in a legitimate office environment
but only exempts those who are acting “in the course of a professional practice.”
See Moore, 423 U.S. at 138, 143, 96 S. Ct. at 343, 345. Thus, the principal inquiry as to
whether a physician is liable for criminal distribution of dangerous drugs is not whether he
or she maintains an office or professional staff, but whether the physician ceases to
distribute or dispense controlled substances as a medical professional and instead acts as a
“pusher.” Feingold, 454 F.3d at 1008.
¶102 Because this case is novel in Montana and federal law defining whether a physician
is acting within the course of a professional practice is congruent with Montana’s criminal
distribution statute, it was appropriate for the State and the District Court to consult the
CSA and Moore and its progeny in interpreting § 45-9-101, MCA.
¶103 Christensen argues that the District Court improperly instructed the jury as to the
offense of criminal distribution because unlike the primary federal case,25 Feingold, on
which the District Court relied in crafting its jury instructions, the instructions (1) did not
instruct the jury on the heightened mens rea requirement of “intent” necessary for a
physician to be criminally liable for drug distribution, but only required the State to prove
Christensen acted “purposely or knowingly,” and (2) did not include a “good faith” defense
¶104 In Feingold, the defendant, Dr. Jeffrey Feingold, a naturopathic physician licensed
in Arizona, was indicted for 185 counts of illegal distribution of controlled substances in
violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) for disregarding proper prescribing practices, failure to
25 Alternatively, Christensen argues that the District Court erred as a matter of law by using
jury instructions based on federal case law to instruct the jury on Montana law. Although
Christensen now challenges the use of Feingold, the State’s first pretrial motion before the District
Court sought an order clarifying Montana’s drug distribution statute and adoption of jury
instructions, relying on Feingold in support of its motion. Christensen did not file a brief in
opposition, and the District Court determined that Christensen’s failure to file a brief operated as
an admission that the State’s motion was well taken. Accordingly, Christensen effectively waived
his right to raise this issue on appeal. State v. Hanna, 2014 MT 346, ¶ 22, 377 Mont. 418, 341
P.3d 629; § 46-16-410(3), MCA. Further, Montana supports adopting principles of federal jury
instruction law to clarify important safeguards in the absence of applicable Montana case law.
State v. Grimes, 1999 MT 145, ¶¶ 43, 45, 295 Mont. 22, 982 P.2d 1037; Nelson, ¶ 23. As explained
above, because this case is novel in Montana, and Feingold and other federal case law as to whether
a physician may be prosecuted for criminal distribution is not incongruent with Montana’s
Criminal Distribution statute, the District Court did not err in relying on Feingold in crafting its
jury instructions as to Criminal Distribution.
26 Christensen further asserts that the final jury instructions did not instruct the jury on the
difference between civil and criminal liability. However, the good-faith instruction provided
clarifies “a practitioner may not be convicted of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs based on
mere negligence,” but only may be for “purposely or knowingly prescribing dangerous drugs for
no legitimate medical purpose.” This instruction clearly indicates that standard negligence, the
standard required for a medical malpractice civil lawsuit, does not apply.
provide physical examinations, improper recordkeeping for prescriptions, and writing
prescriptions to recovering drug addicts. Feingold, 454 F.3d at 1004-06. The District
Court instructed the jury that it had to find three elements to convict Feingold under
§ 841(a) as a licensed practitioner: (1) the defendant distributed a controlled substance;
(2) the defendant distributed the controlled substance knowingly and intentionally; and
(3) the defendant prescribed or distributed the substance other than for a legitimate medical
purpose and not in the usual course of professional practice.” Feingold, 454 F.3d at 1006.
The District Court also provided a supplemental instruction regarding the good faith
A practitioner may not be convicted of unlawful distribution of controlled
substances when he distributes controlled substances in good faith to patients
in the regular course of professional practice. Only the lawful acts of a
practitioner, however, are exempted from prosecution under the law. A
controlled substance is distributed by a practitioner in the usual course of his
professional practice if the substance is distributed by him in good faith in
medically treating a patient. Good faith is not merely a practitioner’s sincere
intention towards the people who come to see him, but, rather, it involves his
sincerity in attempting to conduct himself in accordance with a standard of
medical practice generally recognized and accepted in the country. Thus,
good faith in this context means an honest effort to prescribe for a patient’s
condition in accordance with the standard of medical practice generally
recognized and accepted in the country. However, practitioners who act
outside the usual course of professional practice and prescribe or distribute
controlled substances for no legitimate medical purpose may be guilty of
unlawful distribution of controlled substances.
Feingold, 454 F.3d at 1006 (emphasis added).
¶105 The jury found Feingold guilty on all 185 counts. Feingold, 454 F.3d. at 1006.
Feingold appealed, arguing that the district court misrepresented the elements of the crime
because the jury instructions permitted the jury to convict him without an adequate
determination of his mens rea, and that to convict a licensed practitioner under the federal
statute, a jury must look into his subjective state of mind and determine that he intended to
act outside the course of his professional practice. Feingold, 454 F.3d. at 1007. The court
agreed, explaining that “a practitioner who acts outside the usual course of professional
practice may be convicted under § 841(a) only if he does so intentionally.” Feingold, 454
F.3d. at 1007. The Ninth Circuit emphasized that to convict a practitioner under § 841(a),
the jury must make a finding of intent both with respect to distribution and with respect to
the doctor’s intent to act as a pusher rather than a medical professional. Feingold, 454 F.3d
¶106 The court, however, was satisfied that the jury instructions required the jury to find
that Feingold intentionally acted outside the usual course of professional practice despite
the instructions not explicitly using the word “intent,” because the supplemental
instructions made at least four references to Feingold’s state of mind, all in connection with
instructions regarding the professional competence of a licensed practitioner. Feingold,
454 F.3d at 1008. Viewed in their entirety, the court held that the instructions “compelled
the jury to consider whether Dr. Feingold intended to distribute the controlled substances
for a legitimate medical purpose and whether he intended to act within the usual course of
professional practice.” Feingold, 454 F.3d at 1009.
¶107 Christensen’s argument conflates the federal heightened mens rea requirement—
“intent”—with Montana’s “purposely” or “knowingly” requirement. Beginning in 1973,
the Montana Legislature modified the mens rea culpability requirements, adopting
“purposely” and “knowingly” to embody “intent.” See State v. Sharbono, 175 Mont. 373,
393, 563 P.2d 61, 72 (1977). Section 45-2-103(1), MCA, provides, “Except for deliberate
homicide . . . or an offense that involves absolute liability, a person is not guilty of an
offense unless, with respect to each element described by the statute defining the offense,
a person acts while having one of the mental states of knowingly, negligently, or
purposely.” In Montana, in order to be found guilty of criminal distribution of dangerous
drugs, direct or circumstantial evidence must establish that the defendant acted “purposely”
or “knowingly” with regards to each element of the crime. See § 45-9-101, MCA; State v.
Otto, 2014 MT 20, ¶ 5, 373 Mont. 385, 317 P.3d 810.
¶108 Here, the State and the District Court relied on Feingold not for its federal mens rea
requirement but to ensure that important safeguards were followed in the unique instance
where a physician is being prosecuted for criminal distribution. By consulting Feingold,
the court ensured that the State’s burden was not only to prove criminal intent with respect
to Christensen’s distribution of dangerous drugs, but also Christensen’s intent to do so
outside the course of a professional practice. The jury instructions here meet the
requirement for Montana law, repeating that the professional practice exemption does not
apply if the defendant “purposely or knowingly prescribes a dangerous drug for no
legitimate medical purpose.” It is clear, based on this instruction, that the jury must infer
that to convict Christensen for criminal distribution he must have known that he was
distributing a dangerous drug and was doing so for no legitimate medical purpose.
¶109 Further, the “good faith” instruction was also provided. The supplemental
The legitimacy of the “medical purpose” [exemption] is not determined
merely by a practitioner’s sincere intent towards his patient. Instead, you are
to determine from the evidence whether the Defendant made an honest effort
to prescribe for a patient’s condition in accordance with the standard of
medical practice, if any, that was generally recognized and accepted in the
State of Montana during the time period in which the prescription occurred.
(Emphasis added.) This instruction fundamentally mirrors the additional instruction in
Feingold, which provided, “Good faith is not merely a practitioner’s sincere intention
towards the people who come to see him, but, rather, it involves his sincerity in attempting
to conduct himself in accordance with a standard of medical practice generally recognized
and accepted in the country.” Feingold, 451 F.3d at 1006. Here, the State had to prove
that Christensen acted purposely or knowingly when distributing dangerous drugs and
without a legitimate medical purpose. The District Court did not err in its instruction to
the jury for criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
¶110 Christensen also raises several arguments that the District Court erred in allowing
impermissible 404(b) evidence to be admitted at trial. First, Christensen argues that the
District Court’s admission of testimony from Idaho Board witnesses Uranga and Leonard,
who provided “thumbnail sketches” of overdose victims Christensen treated in Idaho,
violated the court’s order on motions in limine, was barred as irrelevant under M. R. Evid.
404(b), and was prejudicial under M. R. Evid. 403 and State v. Buckles, 2018 MT 150, 391
Mont. 511, 420 P.3d 511. Christensen further argues that the State did not provide him
with sufficient notice as to the use of this evidence before trial and that the District Court
failed to conduct a hearing prior to admitting this evidence.
¶111 M. R. Evid. 404(b) prohibits evidence of “other crimes, wrongs, or acts . . . to prove
the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith.” State v.
Spottedbear, 2016 MT 243, ¶ 44, 385 Mont. 68, 380 P.3d 810. However, prior act evidence
may “be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent,
preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.” M. R. Evid.
404(b). The distinction between admissible and inadmissible Rule 404(b) evidence turns
on the intended purpose of the evidence, not its substance. State v. Blaz, 2017 MT 164,
¶ 12, 388 Mont. 105, 398 P.3d 247. Moreover, Rule 404(b) must be viewed in concert with
M. R. Evid. 403, which allows the exclusion of relevant evidence if its probative value is
substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. State v. Franks, 2014 MT 273,
¶ 15, 376 Mont. 431, 335 P.3d 725. This occurs “when the evidence will prompt the jury
to decide the case on an improper basis.” State v. Stewart, 2012 MT 317, ¶ 67, 367 Mont.
503, 291 P.3d 1187.
¶112 Prior to admitting 404(b) evidence, the prosecution must disclose evidence it intends
to use regarding “other crimes, wrongs, or acts”; it is the defendant’s burden to identify
any of the State’s evidence he or she believes should be excluded as irrelevant or unfairly
prejudicial and provide argument and authority as to why such evidence should be
excluded. State v. Dist. Court of the Eighteenth Jud. Dist., 2010 MT 263, ¶ 49, 358 Mont.
325, 246 P.3d 415. The court also “should conduct a hearing and issue a written decision
with appropriate findings of fact and conclusions of law.” Eighteenth Jud. Dist., ¶ 49
¶113 Evidence of Christensen’s prior Idaho conduct was highly relevant and admissible
for non-propensity purposes for all three of Christensen’s charges—to demonstrate that
Christensen’s prescribing practices were done purposely or knowingly and not the product
of a mistake or accident, that he knew of the harm of death or bodily injury by prescribing
opioids without carefully following important safeguards, and that he should have been
aware of the risk of death by prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines to patients who
exhibited histories of drug abuse. And precisely because this evidence was highly
probative it was therefore not unduly prejudicial.27
See Blaz, ¶ 20 (probative evidence rises
to the level of being unfairly prejudicial only “if it arouses the jury’s hostility or sympathy
for one side without regard to its probative value . . . .”) (emphasis added). Probative
evidence is frequently prejudicial to the defendant; this does not make such evidence
unfairly prejudicial, requiring exclusion. State v. Buslayev, 2013 MT 88, ¶ 11, 369 Mont.
428, 299 P.3d 324.
27 Christensen also argues that the court allowed unfairly prejudicial transaction evidence in
admitting testimony from Detective Basnaw regarding his assertion that Christensen was
responsible for a large number of overdose deaths, the State’s questioning of Christensen that
“85 percent” of pharmacies refused to fill his prescriptions, as well as testimony from Cummings,
Golden, Jessop, and Gore, all who testified that they heard about Christensen because he was an
easy source of prescription pills. For the same reasons as Christensen’s past Idaho conduct, this
evidence was highly probative and admissible for non-propensity purposes—to show knowledge
and absence of mistake—for all Christensen’s charges. Moreover, the State did not elicit the
challenged testimony of Basnaw; rather, Basnaw made this statement on cross-examination when
he was asked “when did you decide to target my client.” Similarly, the State questioned
Christensen as to the truthfulness of his own prior admission when he purportedly told the Task
Force that “85 percent of pharmacies” refused to fill his prescriptions. Further, Christensen did
not object to testimony from Cummings, Golden, Jessop, and Gore and therefore waived his right
to challenge the admissibility of this testimony on appeal. Longfellow, ¶ 19.
¶114 Christensen was provided with sufficient notice about the proposed use of the Idaho
evidence. The State’s Information, filed over two years prior to trial, clarified that it would
seek to rely on evidence from Idaho to show Christensen was operating outside the course
of a professional practice. Through his pretrial discovery demands, Christensen received
notes from law enforcement officials to be used at trial, was supplied with thousands of
pages of discovery materials, and was notified by the State’s motion in limine about law
enforcement’s contextual evidence it planned to introduce at trial. And at trial, prior to
Uranga’s testimony, Christensen’s counsel acknowledged that “I’m not suggesting in any
way that the information [of the Idaho allegations] itself is a surprise or that the state failed
to provide it to us or anything like that.” Accordingly, Christensen waived any objection
on appeal and cannot now claim unfair surprise to the State’s proposed testimony stemming
from his Idaho Board cases.
¶115 The District Court also did not evade its gatekeeping duties in permitting at trial the
evidence of Christensen’s prior conduct in Idaho. Christensen’s motion in limine did not
request a hearing on the proposed admissibility of the evidence, nor did he file a reply brief
asking for a hearing. Nonetheless, the District Court clearly grasped the significance of
this proposed evidence, issuing an order explaining that evidence of Christensen’s Idaho
conduct was permissible for non-propensity purposes. Moreover, the court consulted with
both parties prior to Uranga’s testimony, to which Christensen’s counsel acknowledged
that “they’ve got to get into the allegations some, so I’m not necessarily suggesting that the
testimony should be restricted . . . .” The court limited the State’s questioning of Uranga
to the type of drugs involved in Idaho, the number of complaints, and general Idaho Board
allegations, and the State did not reference Christensen’s federal charges, trial, or acquittal
stemming from his Idaho conduct. And at Christensen’s behest, the court included
Instruction No. 28, which specified the proper purpose for which this evidence could be
used, further mitigating any risk of unfair prejudice. The District Court did not err in
admitting testimony as to Christensen’s prior Idaho conduct.
Sufficient Evidence Claim
¶116 Finally, Christensen argues that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to
conclude that Christensen committed criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
Christensen argues that the State failed to demonstrate that he was acting outside the course
of a professional practice because every patient had a legitimate medical condition that
caused him or her pain, no State expert testified that Christensen’s treatment was without
a legitimate medical purpose or that he prescribed dangerous drugs outside the course of a
professional practice, and most of the patients testified that they lied to Christensen about
¶117 Here, the jury was tasked with determining whether Christensen committed criminal
distribution beyond a reasonable doubt for each of the eleven named patients. Therefore,
the jury had to decide, based on the presence of direct and circumstantial evidence, whether
Christensen prescribed dangerous drugs to each of these patients purposely or knowingly,
and did so without any legitimate medical purpose while acting outside the course of a
professional practice. Section 45-9-101(6), MCA; Feingold, 454 F.3d at 1008. A person
acts knowingly if he “is aware of [his] own conduct or that the circumstance exists.”
Section 45-2-101(35), MCA. A person acts purposely “if it is the person’s conscious object
to engage in that conduct or to cause that result.” Section 45-2-101(65), MCA. In other
words, whether Christensen may be convicted of criminal distribution is contingent on
whether he knew what he was doing and/or he did it on purpose.
¶118 A fundamental principle of the criminal justice system is that the State must prove
each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Laird, 2019 MT 198, ¶ 59,
397 Mont. 29, 447 P.3d 416. A jury may consider all direct and circumstantial evidence,
as well as any legitimate inferences that may be legally drawn therefrom, to determine a
defendant’s culpability. Laird, ¶ 60. The existence of alternative interpretations of
circumstantial evidence does not mean that both interpretations are equally persuasive.
State v. Sanchez, 2017 MT 192, ¶ 17, 388 Mont. 262, 399 P.3d 886. The jury, exclusively,
draws inferences from circumstantial evidence and should determine its conclusions on
elements of the crime if “warranted by the evidence as a whole.” State v. Kelly, 2005 MT
200, ¶ 21, 328 Mont. 187, 119 P.3d 67. There is sufficient evidence to support a conviction
if, “after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational
trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable
doubt.” State v. Daniels, 2019 MT 214, ¶ 27, 397 Mont. 204, 448 P.3d 511.
¶119 At trial, the State presented testimony from Idaho Board witnesses regarding the
investigation of Christensen in Idaho in an effort to demonstrate that here, Christensen
purposely or knowingly prescribed dangerous drugs outside the course of a professional
practice. Testimony from Uranga revealed that Christensen was previously investigated
for prescribing excessive and inordinate amounts of controlled substances, that he
prescribed these drugs to addicted persons, and that he was operating outside the accepted
standards of medical practice established by the Idaho medical community. Furthermore,
Uranga testified that Christensen’s second investigation stemmed from violations of his
first stipulation with the State of Idaho following overprescribing to 28 former patients, 23
of whom were prescribed opioids in conjunction with benzodiazepines, five of whom died
from drug overdoses, and another six who were hospitalized from overdoses. This
testimony supported the jury’s inference that Christensen acted purposely or knowingly
when he engaged in similar conduct in Montana.
¶120 The State also presented extensive expert and patient testimony demonstrating that
Christensen failed to adhere to authorized prescribing practices when treating these
patients. For all eleven patients, Christensen either failed to conduct adequate initial
examinations and assessments or completely disregarded initial assessments. Patients and
experts testified that Christensen never contacted past medical providers before offering
prescriptions; did not conduct sufficient diagnostic tests; met with patients for only five to
25 minutes on the very first visit; did not use imaging studies to pinpoint the source of
patients’ pain or understand potential risks with prescribing opioids; never utilized blood
or urine tests on the first visit to identify red flags; rarely conducted follow-up
appointments other than to refill prescriptions; never used referrals to other medical
professionals; never discussed the goals of treatment; and never used an opioid agreement
to hold patients accountable. Christensen also ubiquitously refused to utilize other
treatment modalities, only using prolotherapy on two occasions for one patient and physical
therapy for another.
¶121 Patient and expert testimony reflected that Christensen prescribed opioids on the
very first visit to all eleven patients, regardless if requested, and often in conjunction with
benzodiazepines. In some instances, Christensen even asked patients directly which
opioids they would prefer or provided them with a drug menu, a fact Christensen confirmed
on cross-examination. Christensen never discussed warnings for taking these medications
together or when to cease taking medications. Furthermore, Christensen prescribed huge
quantities of opioids, far above the 40 or 50 mg per day that experts testified was the highest
effective dose. In the case of Sutherland, Christensen was prescribing up to 1,000 pills at
a time, with instructions to take up to 600 mg of Methadone per day, an amount that
Dr. Wasan testified would never be prescribed to “someone dying of cancer in their final
days.” Dr. Wasan testified that Christensen’s prescriptions for two of these patients was
akin to giving these patients “a loaded gun” to harm or kill themselves. Meridee Lieberg,
Daniel Lieberg’s mother, a nurse for 47 years, testified she had never seen the quantity of
prescriptions Christensen provided to Lieberg.
¶122 Patients further testified that Christensen sometimes told them where to fill
prescriptions, that they often had a hard time filling prescriptions because of the quantities
of drugs prescribed, and that on multiple occasions, Christensen used street slang to refer
to drugs and disclosed their street value. In one case, Christensen often traded prescriptions
in exchange for manual labor from a patient. Christensen provided another patient with
Adderall directly on at least two separate occasions. In a third case, Christensen wrote a
prescription for Adderall to a patient after she failed a urinalysis test for Adderall for which
she did not have a prescription, and otherwise did not modify her other prescriptions in any
way. And one patient testified that Christensen asked her if she owed anyone Methadone.
¶123 Additionally, most patients testified that they had a history of addiction to opioids
or other drugs prior to seeing Christensen. In the cases of Sutherland, Lieberg, and Griffin,
Christensen knew or should have been aware that these patients were on Suboxone therapy
for prior opioid addictions because they either told Christensen of their past addictions or
disclosed that information to his risk assessment counselor. In the case of Philbrick, Price
testified that she disclosed to Christensen her struggles with alcohol. In Jessop’s case, she
testified that she had track marks on her arm from past intravenous drug use. And in the
case of Cummings, she testified that she told Christensen directly that she was addicted to
Methadone. Nonetheless, all these patients received opioids from Christensen on the first
appointment. While Christensen argues that many of these patients were dishonest with
him regarding past drug abuse histories, this fact does not relieve Christensen of his duties
to act in good faith within the course of a professional practice. See Feingold, 454 F.3d at
1010. It remains incumbent on the treating physician to utilize careful assessments and
tests to determine risk factors beyond cursory conversations with patients to effectively
treat patients and mitigate the risk of harm.
¶124 The State’s multiple expert witnesses testified about the standard of care with which
medical professionals must comply. Dr. Wasan reviewed all the medical files for
Christensen as to his treatment of the eleven patients and testified that Christensen’s
conduct fell far below the applicable professional practice standards. Christensen failed to
conduct appropriate assessments, tests and interviews, failed to conduct follow-ups, failed
to utilize treatment modalities beyond opioids, failed to utilize opioid agreements or
treatment plans, and prescribed dangerous quantities of opioids and benzodiazepines
without any documented reason. Even Dr. Tennant, Christensen’s expert, testified that,
although he believed Christensen was acting within the course of a professional practice,
Christensen’s care was “atrocious” and “laughable.” Dr. Wasan, Dr. Ravitz, Dr. Furrow,
and Dr. Bender also all testified that Christensen’s medical charts were woefully
inadequate, described by one expert as insufficient to pass as a second-year medical
¶125 Christensen argues that all eleven patients had a legitimate medical issue such that
he was nonetheless acting within the course of a professional practice. However, the
presence of a legitimate medical issue does not grant a physician a free pass to prescribe
scheduled narcotics in any way that he or she pleases; the appropriate inquiry rests on
whether the distribution of controlled substances was for a legitimate medical purpose.
Feingold, 454 F.3d at 1010. Here, expert testimony established that Christensen’s lack of
appropriate assessments or follow-ups fundamentally undermined his ability to make
accurate diagnoses of underlying causes of pain. Accordingly, it was reasonable for the
jury to conclude that there was in fact no legitimate medical purpose for prescribing
massive quantities of opioids and benzodiazepines to these patients.
¶126 Christensen further asserts that he cannot be convicted because none of the State’s
medical experts explicitly testified that he was acting outside the course of a professional
practice and for no legitimate medical purpose, and the only expert testimony offered on
the issue was his own, Dr. Tennant, who testified Christensen was acting within the course
of a professional practice. However, the existence of alternative interpretations of
circumstantial evidence does not mean that both interpretations are equally persuasive.
Sanchez, ¶ 17. Moreover, the jury may infer the requisite mental state from what a
defendant says and does, and from all the facts and circumstances involved. Section
¶127 Reviewing the facts in the light most favorable to the prosecution, we conclude there
was overwhelming evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Christensen used his
prescription writing authority as a pretext to act as a drug dealer, supporting drug tolerance
or feeding addictions for all eleven patients, and that he purposely or knowingly acted
outside the course of a professional practice and for no legitimate medical purpose when
prescribing dangerous drugs to these patients. Accordingly, we affirm Christensen’s
convictions for eleven counts of Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs.
¶128 Issue Two: Whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Christensen
committed Criminal Endangerment as to his treatment of nine patients.
¶129 On January 18, 2017, Christensen filed a motion to dismiss his criminal
endangerment charges, arguing that Montana’s criminal endangerment statute, § 45-5-207,
MCA, is unconstitutionally vague as applied because the statute does not prohibit a specific
type of medical practice or specify a quantifiable amount of risk such that physicians are
not provided fair notice that prescribing controlled substances could constitute conduct
creating a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury. On April 5, 2017, the District
Court issued an Opinion and Order denying Christensen’s motion. The court held that the
statute provided sufficient notice to Christensen because the allegations assert that
Christensen prescribed controlled substances outside the course of a professional practice,
and minimal standards are provided to those enforcing the statute.
¶130 Christensen first argues that the District Court improperly denied his motion to
dismiss because Montana’s criminal endangerment statute is unconstitutionally vague as
applied to physicians. Christensen contends that the statute uses broad, undefined terms,
provides no guidelines about its application in a medical context, and fails to distinguish
legal from illegal prescribing of controlled substances.
¶131 Statutes are presumed constitutional, and a party challenging a statute’s
constitutionality must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the statute is
unconstitutional; any doubt must be resolved in favor of the statute. State v. Knudson, 2007
MT 324, ¶ 12, 340 Mont. 167, 174 P.3d 469. A void for vagueness challenge to a statute
may be raised on two different bases: (1) “facial,” where the statute is so vague that it is
rendered void on its face, or (2) “as-applied,” where the statute is vague as applied to the
facts of a particular situation. Knudson ¶ 16. A vagueness as-applied analysis has two
elements: (1) whether the statute provides actual notice to citizens, and (2) and whether the
statute provides minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement. State v. Dixon, 2000 MT
82, ¶ 28, 299 Mont. 165, 998 P.2d 544.
¶132 In determining whether a statute provides actual notice to citizens, this Court must
determine whether the statute provides a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that
their contemplated conduct is forbidden. Dixon, ¶ 28. A statute challenged for vagueness
as-applied to a particular defendant must be examined in light of the conduct with which
the defendant is charged in order to determine whether the defendant could have reasonably
understood that his conduct was proscribed. Knudson, ¶ 21.
¶133 A person commits the offense of criminal endangerment when he “knowingly
engages in conduct that creates a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to
another.” Section 45-5-207, MCA; State v. Fleming, 2019 MT 237, ¶ 13, 397 Mont. 345,
449 P.3d 1234. The criminal endangerment statute does not require the victim suffer actual
physical injury, but only that the defendant engage in conduct creating a substantial risk of
death or serious bodily injury. Fleming, ¶ 13. A person acts knowingly for the purposes
of criminal endangerment when the person is aware of the high probability that the conduct
in which he is engaged will cause a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to
another. Sections 45-2-101(35), 45-5-207(1), MCA. “Conduct” is defined as “an act or
series of acts and the accompanying mental state.” Section 45-2-101(15), MCA.
¶134 Christensen’s argument insinuates that physicians generally are not provided with
fair notice because of limited definitions of terms in the statute such as “substantial risk.”
However, the Legislature need not define every term it employs when constructing a statute
so long as the meaning of the statute is clear and provides a defendant with adequate notice
of what conduct is proscribed. State v. Nye, 283 Mont. 505, 513, 943 P.2d 96, 101-02
(1997). And the issue is not, as Christensen contends, whether the statute fails to put any
reasonable person on notice that the act of prescribing scheduled drugs in any medical
practice constitutes a felony under the statute. Rather, the issue is whether Christensen
could have reasonably understood that the statute prohibited his conduct—overprescribing
and disregarding essential tests, follow-ups, and safeguards along with prescribing massive
amounts of dangerous prescription drugs to patients with histories of drug abuse and
addiction. See Dixon, ¶ 29.
¶135 The statute clearly applies to Christensen such that he had actual notice that his
conduct was prohibited. First, Christensen’s past conduct in Idaho, in which he
overprescribed opioid and benzodiazepine medications and failed to provide appropriate
tests, diagnoses, or monitoring, alerted Christensen to the fact that he should have been
reasonably aware of the impropriety of his behavior, given that five of these patients died
from drug overdoses, six additional patients were hospitalized, and Christensen was subject
to two separate investigations and sanctions by the Idaho Board of Medicine. Similarly,
Montana’s medical guidelines further exemplify the need for licensed physicians to create
pain management plans, identify risks of abuse, consult past medical histories, and follow
appropriate follow-up plans to effectively treat chronic pain patients with opioids.
¶136 Common sense dictates that a licensed medical doctor who has practiced for 30
years and possesses a DEA license to administer scheduled narcotics would have known
the inherent risks of prescribing opioids, benzodiazepines, and numerous other Schedule II
and Schedule IV controlled substances in shocking quantities and often at the same time.
He demonstrated that he knew he was way out of the realm of professional medical practice
by telling patients to use a Corvallis pharmacy, as other pharmacists refused to fill his
prescriptions. Despite these warnings, Christensen’s conduct in Montana reflected a
similar pattern of behavior as he previously exhibited in Idaho, using his practice as a cover
to administer dangerous drugs, disregarding or ignoring past medical records, ignoring
appropriate tests or efforts to appropriately diagnose patients’ underlying cause of pain,
and failing to utilize important safeguards when prescribing dangerous drugs. Christensen
could have reasonably understood that his conduct was proscribed such that the statute
provided Christensen with actual notice.
¶137 In analyzing the second element under the void-for-vagueness doctrine—whether
the statute provides minimal guidance—we consider whether the challenged statute
provides an explicit standard for those who apply them, or whether the law impermissibly
delegates basic policy matters to police, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and
subjective basis, risking arbitrary and discriminatory application. State v. Stanko, 1998
MT 321, ¶ 23, 292 Mont. 192, 974 P.2d 1132. Christensen contends that there were no
minimal guidelines to enforce the statute because the statute fails to distinguish legal from
illegal prescribing of controlled substances and does not specify a quantifiable or
understandable amount of risk. Again, we find Christensen’s argument unavailing.
¶138 The inquiry is not whether the standard is imprecise, but whether there is no standard
of conduct specified at all. Monroe v. State, 265 Mont. 1, 4, 873 P.2d 230, 231 (1994)
(citing Village of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, Inc., 455 U.S. 489, 495,
n. 7, 102 S. Ct. 1186, 1191 (1982)). The statute clarifies that it only applies to conduct
creating a “high probability” of a “substantial risk” of death or serious bodily injury, and
must be accompanied by a requisite mental state, “knowingly,” creating such a risk, thus
mandating conformance to a basic, even if imprecise, standard. It is undisputed that the
drugs Christensen administered to the nine patients were inherently dangerous and subject
to abuse. And, in enforcing the statute, police, prosecutors, and juries must adhere to the
legal requirement that a physician may only be prosecuted if he or she knowingly
disregards risks of abuse and nonetheless prescribes such drugs in such a manner and
quantity that the risk of death or bodily injury to patients is “substantial.” The Dissent
essentially contends that a practicing physician can never constitutionally be prosecuted
under this statute. We conclude that § 45-5-207, MCA, is not unconstitutionally vague as
applied to Christensen’s incredibly dangerous and unconscionable conduct. The District
Court did not err in denying Christensen’s motion to dismiss the criminal endangerment
¶139 Christensen also argues that the State presented insufficient evidence demonstrating
that his conduct amounted to criminal endangerment because the State failed to prove that
Christensen was aware of the high probability of the risk of death or serious bodily injury
that could result from his conduct.
¶140 As already stated, Christensen cannot in good faith argue that he was not aware of
the high risk of death or serious bodily injury from prescribing dangerous drugs. For a
physician to prescribe dangerous drugs, such as Schedule II and Schedule IV narcotics, he
or she must undergo extensive medical training and is subject to tight prescribing
restrictions by both federal and state law. And Christensen himself testified that he was
“more than willing” to ignore red flags like patient requests for certain drugs, that he rarely
used the prescription drug registry, that he was concerned about the amount of opioids he
28 The Court is mindful that physicians routinely prescribe narcotics to patients who need
them—often in large quantities. We are also aware that narcotics are often liberally prescribed as
palliative care. The facts here show none of these eleven patients had legitimate medical reasons
for the type or quantity of narcotics they received from Christensen, and none were palliative care
was prescribing to some patients but continued to prescribe the same quantities and in the
same manner regardless, and that following his Idaho Board stipulations and death of
Griffin in Montana, he had ample time to reevaluate his prescription writing practices. The
evidence indicates that despite knowledge of the risk of death or serious bodily injury to
patients, Christensen purposely chose not to modify his behavior when treating patients.
¶141 Further, extensive medical literature, including Montana’s own guidelines,
highlights the need for physicians to carefully follow certain assessment, follow-up, and
documentation procedures to ensure that prescriptions are serving their intended purpose
of treating chronic pain patients and not feeding addiction or tolerance. This literature also
indicates, as referenced by numerous medical experts in the case, that opioids can cause a
negative effect on the heart’s electrical conduction signals, can cause a build-up over time
in the patient’s system, can suppress breathing, and further, that combining opioids with
benzodiazepines may create toxic and deadly outcomes for patients. Without careful
review of patients’ medical files, psychological assessments to determine the risk for abuse,
and diligent monitoring, it is evident that such prescriptions can cause harm and death.
And even assuming Christensen was willfully ignorant to these standards, he was already
subject to multiple investigations in Idaho for the same behaviors he exhibited in Montana.
¶142 Christensen further argues that the State did not prove that his prescribing of opioids
posed a “high probability” of death or serious bodily injury to the nine surviving patients
because Dr. Wasan did not offer any testimony that prescribing high doses of opioids or
opioids combined with benzodiazepines posed a “high probability” of a risk of death or
serious bodily injury, and most of the patients who testified admitted they lied extensively
to Christensen about prior addiction histories, pain needs, and addictive behaviors.
¶143 Christensen misstates the standard. In essence, Christensen’s argument mirrors the
erroneous proposition offered by the defendant in Fleming, arguing that providing opioids
and benzodiazepines to patients merely creates only the “possibility” of a substantial risk
of death or serious bodily injury. See Fleming, ¶ 20. But as we held in Fleming, the plain
language of the criminal endangerment statute “does not require a high probability of death
or serious bodily injury from the defendant’s conduct, but a substantial risk to life or limb.”
Fleming, ¶ 16. The correct mental state thus requires that the defendant only “be aware of
a high probability that his conduct may cause a substantial risk of death or serious bodily
injury to another.” Fleming, ¶ 16 (emphasis added).
¶144 Again, testimony from all nine surviving patients and numerous experts indicated
that Christensen did not conduct appropriate assessments, disregarded or failed to even
obtain past medical files for all nine patients, performed limited if any diagnostic tests to
determine patients’ sources of pain, and abjured extensive psychological assessments to
accurately determine the risks of prescribing these drugs to patients. With at least two
patients, he provided a list of drugs from which they could choose at their own discretion.
Despite the lack of appropriate tests, Christensen prescribed opioids in obscene quantities
to all nine patients on the very first visit, most of whom had extensive histories of opioid
abuse. He did not provide careful monitoring or follow-ups to determine how patients
would respond to drugs, but often simply refilled prescriptions. Further, expert testimony
from Dr. Wasan, Dr. Farrow, Dr. Ravitz, and Dr. Bender indicated that Christensen’s
treatment fell far below the standard of practice accepted in the medical community. It is
not dispositive that the State’s experts did not attempt to quantify the risk; as already stated,
the existence of a mental state may be inferred from the acts of the accused and the facts
and circumstances connected with the offense. Section 45-2-103(3), MCA.
¶145 While at least six of these patients testified that they were dishonest with
Christensen about their pain and addiction histories, as Dr. Wasan noted, it is for the
prescriber to adhere to the standards of practice in order to determine the accuracy of such
statements. The mental state required to prove criminal endangerment therefore rests on
Christensen’s efforts to conform to standards of practice given the inherent risk of
administering prescriptions for highly dangerous drugs such that a “substantial” risk of
injury or death is not imparted to the patient. Given ample testimony regarding
Christensen’s prescribing practices, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the
prosecution, we conclude there was sufficient evidence from which a rational jury could
find that Christensen was aware of a high probability that providing opioids,
benzodiazepines, and other drugs to the nine named patients created a substantial risk of
death or serious bodily injury.
¶146 Issue Three: Whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Christensen
negligently caused the deaths of Kara Philbrick and Gregg Griffin.
¶147 On January 18, 2017, Christensen filed a motion to dismiss the negligent homicide
charges. Christensen argued that nothing in the charging documents alleged any facts to
indicate he was the cause-in-fact of the deaths of Philbrick and Griffin. The court denied
Christensen’s motion, finding that there was sufficient evidence and legal authority, relying
on State v. Bier, 181 Mont. 27, 591 P.2d 1115 (1979), such that it remained in the province
of a jury to determine whether the State could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that
Christensen’s conduct caused the deaths of Philbrick and Griffin.
¶148 Jerry Price, Philbrick’s husband, testified that Philbrick was a patient of Dr. Ravitz
for three years prior to seeing Christensen. Price testified that throughout her time with
Dr. Ravitz, she was drinking 2/3 of a gallon of vodka per day. Because of her alcohol
abuse, Dr. Ravitz discontinued her Methadone prescription and changed her to a Fentanyl
patch. Eventually, Philbrick asked Dr. Ravitz to switch her back to Methadone and
increase her dosage to 80 mg per day. Dr. Ravitz declined. On March 13, 2013, two days
after her last visit with Dr. Ravitz, Philbrick visited Christensen who prescribed her
Methadone and Dilaudid and gave her a four-day taper off Fentanyl. Price testified that
Philbrick did not provide Christensen her medical records and that Christensen only
conducted a physical exam of her hand. Christensen did not utilize any blood tests or
perform an EKG. On March 15, 2013, Philbrick died.
¶149 At trial, Scott Schlueter, a forensic toxicologist with the Montana crime lab testified
that he examined Philbrick’s blood and urine. He detected the presence of Methadone,
Dilaudid, Fentanyl, Valium, Zoloft, Tramadol, and alcohol in her blood. Philbrick’s
prescriptions from Christensen were only for Methadone and Dilaudid. Detective Steve
Deibert, a coroner with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, testified that Philbrick’s
cause of death was “mixed drug toxicity,” and he indicated that it was an overdose accident.
He recovered 12 unaccounted-for Methadone pills and two unaccounted-for Dilaudid pills,
both prescribed by Christensen, and one Fentanyl patch prescribed by Dr. Ravitz.
¶150 Dr. Furrow, Gregg Griffin’s previous treating physician, testified that she treated
Griffin with Suboxone therapy from January 2009 until February 2012, and prescribed him
Zoloft for anxiety. In 2011, Dr. Furrow testified that she referred Griffin to a psychiatric
specialist to overtake Griffin’s care for anxiety; the specialist prescribed Zoloft and Xanax
to Griffin. She also testified that Griffin had previously seen Christensen to obtain medical
marijuana cards, issued in 2008, 2009, and 2010. She testified that in 2008, Griffin filled
out a questionnaire in Christensen’s office, notifying Christensen that he was taking
¶151 Dr. Furrow testified that on February 22, 2012, Christensen prescribed Griffin
Methadone on his first visit, and that Christensen did not contact her about Griffin. On
March 2, 2012, Christensen increased Griffin’s Methadone prescription to 70 mg per day.
On March 21, 2012, Marchand evaluated Griffin, noting that Griffin posed a “high risk”
for history of abuse and dependency, a “high risk” for developing problems on long-term
opioid therapy, and recommended “high monitoring.” Marchand also noted that Griffin
told him that “suboxone has been very helpful and he would like to discuss the use of this
medication further with [Christensen].” Griffin’s mother, Sharon, also testified that Griffin
was on Suboxone therapy to keep him off opioids. She testified that on March 10, 2012,
she took Griffin to the emergency room because of adverse effects from his Methadone
¶152 On March 30, 2012, Christensen issued a prescription of 200 pills of Methadone to
Griffin as well as a prescription for Xanax. Christensen did not provide an office visit but
simply refilled Griffin’s prescription. Dr. Furrow testified that there were no warnings or
discussions with Griffin documented regarding the risks of taking his medications or a
specified reason as to why he was prescribed Xanax when he was already receiving that
medication from an additional provider. Dr. Furrow testified that Griffin’s death could not
be attributed to an “overdose” because there was no monitoring and it was irresponsible to
give him this quantity of medications, particularly given his history of addiction. Sharon
Griffin testified that on April 2, 2012, she found Griffin dead.
¶153 Jace Dicken, the lieutenant of patrol and chief deputy coroner for the Missoula
County Sherriff’s Office, testified that on April 2, 2012, he responded to a coroner call for
Griffin. Dicken testified that Griffin’s cause of death was listed as an “accidental
overdose” from “mixed drug toxicity.” Dicken also testified that 60 Methadone pills, nine
Xanax pills, and ten to 20 Doxepin pills were missing from Griffin’s prescription bottles.
Schlueter, the toxicologist, testified that he tested Griffin’s blood and urine samples which
tested positive for Methadone, Xanax, Doxepin, THC, and Propranolol. Schlueter also
testified that Griffin’s urine test showed that he had also taken additional morphine and
benzodiazepine substances not prescribed by Christensen. At the close of the State’s
case-in-chief and again after the close of all evidence, Christensen renewed his motions to
dismiss the negligent homicide charges. The District Court denied Christensen’s motions,
finding that sufficient evidence was presented such that a jury could reasonably find that
Christensen negligently caused the deaths of Philbrick and Griffin.
¶154 Christensen argues that there was not sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to
find Christensen negligently caused the deaths of Philbrick and Griffin. A person commits
the offense of negligent homicide “if the person negligently causes the death of another
human being.” Section 45-5-104(1), MCA. “Negligence” is defined as follows:
[W]hen the person consciously disregards a risk that the result will occur or
that the circumstances exists or when the person disregards a risk of which
the person should be aware that the result will occur or that the circumstance
exists. The risk must be of a nature and degree that to disregard it involves
a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person
would observe in the actor’s situation.
Section 45-2-101(43), MCA (emphasis added).
¶155 “Gross deviation” is “a deviation that is considerably greater than lack of ordinary
care.” Section 45-2-101(43), MCA. A gross deviation under the statutory definition is
analogous to gross negligence in the law of torts. Bier, 181 Mont. at 32, 591 P.2d at 1118.
Although somewhat nebulous in concept, gross negligence is generally considered to fall
short of a reckless disregard for consequences and is said to differ from ordinary negligence
only in degree, not in kind. Bier, 181 Mont. at 32, 591 P.2d at 118 (citing Prosser, Law of
Torts, 183-84 (4th Ed. 1971)).
¶156 In addition, where a crime is based on some form of negligence, the State must also
demonstrate that the defendant’s conduct was both the “cause-in-fact” of the victim’s death
and that the victim was “foreseeably endangered” in a manner and to a degree of harm
which was foreseeable. Bier, 181 Mont. at 32-33, 591 P.2d at 1118. Conduct is a causein-fact of an event if the event would not have occurred but for that conduct; conversely,
the defendant’s conduct is not a cause-in-fact of the event if the event would have occurred
without it. State ex rel. Kuntz v. Mont. Thirteenth Jud. Dist. Court, 2000 MT 22, ¶ 37, 298
Mont. 146, 995 P.2d 951. Clearly, the risk created by Christensen’s conduct under the
circumstances—providing large quantities of prescription drugs with no proper review of
Philbrick’s and Griffin’s medical files, with specific knowledge that Philbrick and Griffin
had a history of addiction—was foreseeable. Therefore, whether Christensen is liable for
negligent homicide rests on whether he was the cause-in-fact of Philbrick’s and Griffin’s
¶157 We conclude that the State failed to meet its burden to prove beyond a reasonable
doubt that Christensen’s prescribing of dangerous drugs was the cause-in-fact of the deaths
of Philbrick and Griffin. The toxicologist determined that both deaths were “accidental
overdose deaths,” caused from “mixed drug toxicity.” Further, both Griffin and Philbrick
had a mixture of legal and illegal drugs in their system, not all of which were prescribed
by Christensen. And no expert testimony provided that the actual cause of death was from
Methadone and benzodiazepine prescriptions written by Christensen or opined as to how
each victim’s combination of drugs caused their deaths.
¶158 To be sure, expert testimony is not required to prove causation in homicide cases.
See Laird, ¶ 70. But under these facts, without more, whether Christensen’s prescriptions,
standing alone, caused the deaths of Philbrick and Griffin remains speculation. The State
argues that Christensen’s grossly negligent conduct, in which he provided Griffin and
Philbrick with dangerous prescriptions, contributed directly to their deaths “as if he handed
each a loaded gun.” However, the evidence presented at trial does not indicate that
Christensen’s prescribing practices caused Philbrick and Griffin to die or that Christensen’s
prescriptions were the sole cause of Philbrick’s and Griffin’s deaths. Because there was
no evidence that Christensen’s negligent prescribing of dangerous drugs was the cause of
Philbrick’s and Griffin’s deaths, there was insufficient evidence to support Christensen’s
convictions for negligent homicide.
Outcome: For the reasons stated, Christensen’s convictions for eleven counts of Criminal
Distribution of Dangerous Drugs, § 45-9-101, MCA, and nine counts of Criminal
Endangerment, § 45-5-207, MCA, are affirmed. We reverse and vacate Christensen’s
conviction for two counts of Negligent Homicide, § 45-5-104(1), MCA, because the State
did not meet its burden to demonstrate that Christensen was the cause-in-fact of the deaths
of Kara Philbrick and Gregg Griffin.