Alicia M. Davidson is pregnant, and her parents say she’s addicted to heroin. But getting out of jail this summer seemed easy for the 36-year-old former medical secretary.
The first time, her parents paid $100 to bail her out of the Niagara County jail, where she spent a week in July for not paying a traffic fine.
A month later, a judge released Davidson on her own recognizance a day after a Niagara Falls police officer arrested her at a vacant house on two misdemeanor drug possession charges.
She was arrested again after missing a court date two weeks later, and then the same judge released her one more time.
Her parents can’t understand why authorities kept letting her out of jail.
“To me, that’s endangering the welfare of a child,” said William Orndorff, her stepfather. “She’s injecting drugs into her body and smoking crack, and there’s a baby in her stomach. They let her loose. I don’t get it.”
The case shows the anguish and frustration of dealing with a pregnant defendant facing drug charges who doesn’t show up for court appearances.
Since her last release from jail, Davidson has missed a drug screening appointment and plea appearance. No one knows where she is.
“The next step for Alicia is a casket,” Orndorff said.
He and his wife, Marilyn, say City Court Judge Danielle M. Restaino should have kept their daughter in jail on the drug charges to protect her and her unborn baby.
“Maybe somebody needs to look at this and say, ‘You’re pregnant. You’re on drugs. You’re not coming out of jail,’ " he said.
Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek sympathizes with the parents. But she doesn’t see the need for a new policy on how to handle such cases.
“We’re not having a hard-and-fast rule on this, because some people need to be released to get treatment,” Wojtaszek said. “I’m not necessarily sure for someone seven months pregnant that jail is the best place.”
Where’s best place?
Davidson, who is expecting her third child in November, apparently is homeless on the streets and crack houses of the most violent neighborhoods in Niagara Falls. She does not have custody of her other two children.
She became involved in drugs through a boyfriend when she was about 28, her parents say. They believe the best place for her would be a jail cell or somewhere else with access to medical care but not to opiates.
But at two court dates in August, Restaino released Davidson on her own recognizance, requiring no bail to be posted.
Davidson was in the Niagara County Jail from June 28 to July 6 after failing to pay a traffic fine in Lewiston. That enabled her to “dry out,” Orndorff said.
While she was in jail, health workers gave Davidson a sonogram and prenatal vitamins.
Her mother, Marilyn Orndorff, said those vitamins are still at their Newfane home, because Davidson slipped out and went back to Niagara Falls less than two hours after her parents put up $100 for bail July 6.
“We thought we were doing the right thing. Looking back on it, it was stupid,” William Orndorff said.
Getting out of jail
About 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 6, a Niagara Falls police officer was sent to a vacant house at 1928 Niagara St. to check a report of people inside the building.
The officer saw Davidson “sitting on the porch with several hypodermic needles next to her left leg,” according to the incident report.
Alicia turned over a small tinfoil package containing alleged heroin, and the officer also saw a brown chunk inside a small plastic bag. He thought it was crack cocaine, and Davidson confirmed that it was. Later, tests at Police Headquarters showed the officer had confiscated heroin and crack.
Davidson was arrested on two counts of seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, both misdemeanors.
“Davidson was under the influence of heroin when arrested and kept falling asleep while standing, and could not stand up, or still, long enough to be fingerprinted,” the report stated.
The next morning, Aug. 7, Davidson was brought before Restaino for arraignment. Assistant Public Defender Lawrence G. Stuart represented her and entered a not-guilty plea.
According to a transcript, Stuart asked for Davidson to be released on her own recognizance without having to post bail. Restaino, who is in her second year on the bench, consented, after warning Davidson that she would be arrested on a warrant if she didn’t show up for a pretrial conference Aug. 21.
No prosecutor was present, which is not unusual in a busy city court.
Asked about how he handled the arraignment, Stuart told a reporter, “That’s my job.”
He declined a further interview.
“I completely sympathize with the family and the parents. I certainly hope they’ve expressed their dismay to the defense attorney,” said Wojtaszek, the Niagara County district attorney.
When Davidson failed to show up Aug. 21, Restaino issued a bench warrant, saying bail would be $1,500.
On Aug. 25, a Falls police officer apprehended Davidson. Despite what she said about bail four days earlier, Restaino let her go again without posting any bail. Wojtaszek said no prosecutor was present for the unscheduled Friday appearance.
Restaino is not permitted to be interviewed about the case, said Andrew Isenberg of the 8th Judicial District administrative office.
'System has failed'
Orndorff says the judicial system is failing his stepdaughter and others.
"It's not just a legal issue. It's a moral and ethical issue. When you stop looking at people as people and start looking at them just as a docket number, the system has failed," he said. "Until this opiate epidemic becomes a moral issue and stops becoming an legal issue, it's never going to change."
If Davidson can be found alive, Assistant District Attorney John A. Andrews said he intends to offer her a chance to plead guilty to a Class B misdemeanor, provided she agrees to enter drug court.
There, a treatment program would be set up for her, perhaps including inpatient rehabilitation, with jail sentences for violating its rules.
If she successfully completes the drug court program, her charge would be reduced to a non-criminal violation, Andrews said. Such "treatment courts" have become common in New York in recent years. Failure in the program would result in a maximum 90-day jail sentence.
But defendants who are interested in drug court have to go through a screening process to make sure they really are addicts and don't have violent crimes in their past that would make them ineligible. Alicia never showed up for the screening Sept. 5 or the plea date Sept. 6.
Restaino issued another bench warrant and again said bail would be $1,500.
Andrews, after meeting with the Orndorffs, went into the courtroom and asked Restaino to set $750 cash bail. He explained that might be more likely to keep Davidson behind bars after she's picked up, because a bail bondsman probably would issue a $1,500 bail bond for only $150 down. But for a bail amount under $1,000, most bondsmen would be more likely to demand cash in full.
Wojtaszek, the district attorney, said state law requires a judge to consider several factors in setting bail, including the seriousness of the charge, the defendant’s reputation and a history of missing court.
Pregnancy isn’t among those factors.
In the eyes of the law, the main purpose of bail is to try to ensure the defendant’s return to court.
“We can’t say, ‘Well, she’s pregnant, we really want to keep her in jail.’ That’s not even something we can argue,” Wojtaszek said. “If we said it, they would say, ‘What does that have to do with her coming back to court?’ “
And the DA noted that Davidson is a criminal defendant with rights.
“By sticking her in jail, what are we saying there? This person who is presumed innocent, who isn’t proven guilty yet, we’re going to put in jail because she’s pregnant, to keep her from drug use so she can safely have the baby in jail? We just haven’t gone there as a society. Certainly the (criminal procedure law) does not call for that sort of treatment,” Wojtaszek said.
Searching for Alicia
Orndorff said his stepdaughter had to be showing her pregnancy by the time of her first court date, and the danger should have been apparent just by reading the arrest report.
“We’re trying to do the right thing, and the courts are working against us,” he said.
The Orndorffs have been searching the streets of Niagara Falls for their daughter, almost daily.
“All day long, we went up and down the street looking for her,” Marilyn Orndorff said after one day of looking. “People were looking at us like we were stalking. ... It felt kind of creepy doing that. I didn’t feel safe.”
William Orndorff said he spotted his stepdaughter twice. On Aug. 21, the day of a court appearance that Davidson skipped, he saw her go into a building on 19th Street, regarded by Niagara University crime researchers as the city’s most violent street.
Orndorff told a nearby policeman, who couldn’t make the arrest because the bench warrant hadn’t been issued yet.
On Sept. 7, he again saw Davidson on 19th Street, but she didn’t respond to his shouts.
“She ran because she knows we want her to go to jail to get the help she needs,” Orndorff said.
And her parents aren’t the only ones who are looking for Davidson. So is the state Health Department, though they won’t say why.
Marilyn Orndorff said she was contacted by a Health Department worker who is trying to get Davidson to go to a hospital to obtain medication that would help her unborn child.
Because of health privacy laws, the worker won’t tell even the Orndorffs about Davidson’s health concern.
Marilyn Orndorff said her daughter underwent a blood test when she was in the county jail this summer.
The Orndorffs have had residential custody of Davidson’s 6-year-old son for the past five years, and her 16-year-old son lives with his father in Sanborn.
William Orndorff, a Navy veteran who retired last year after 28 years as a full-time member of the fire department at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, said he and his wife are in Family Court trying to win permanent custody of the 6-year-old.
Should something change?
Orndorff said he’d like to see the District Attorney’s Office adopt a new policy for pregnant women arrested on drug charges.
But there have been many success stories in drug court that did not require the defendant remain in jail, the district attorney said.
“Ultimately, success depends on the user,” Wojtaszek said. “For the best interest of her and her unborn child, I wish she participates.”
If Davidson has been using drugs throughout her pregnancy, her fetus might already be irreparably harmed, William Orndorff acknowledged.
“It’s likely it has, but they could have stopped it,” he said. “These people don’t need to be on the street. She’s a danger to herself and the baby.”
Marilyn Orndorff said she was reduced to tears by online videos she’s seen of babies born addicted to drugs.
“I’m here to save my daughter and her unborn child,” she said. “The child didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
“I knew Alicia when she was a beautiful sweet girl who went to work every day and did what she was supposed to do,” William Orndorff said. “You know what her hobby was? Scrapbooking, with pictures of her sons.”
Her mother said the scrapbooking materials are still kept in a box for Davidson to use – if she ever comes home.