Dentist, hygienist wife get probation before judgment for drug possession

Catonsville man fighting to resume his practice

April 15, 2004|By Walter F. Roche | Walter F. Roche,SUN STAFF

A Catonsville dentist and his hygienist wife pleaded guilty yesterday to cocaine possession but avoided convictions or jail terms, as District Judge Dorothy J. Wilson -- over the objections of the prosecutor -- granted them probation before judgment.

The dentist, Charles P. Franz, 41, will be under supervised probation for 18 months and must undergo drug tests. His dental license was suspended earlier, but he is fighting to get the right to resume his practice.

A hearing is scheduled Wednesday before the state dental board on charges issued Feb. 18 that Franz violated the state law regulating dentists by possessing or using drugs in an illegitimate manner. The board turned down a motion filed by Franz to have the suspension order lifted pending next week's hearing.

Christine V. Hobbs, executive secretary to the board, said that under its rules the hearing will not be open to the public and that only those subpoenaed to appear will be allowed in the hearing room.

Before the suspension, Franz operated dental offices in Columbia, Halethorpe and Catonsville.

The judge granted probation without a guilty finding only after noting that she was troubled by the fact that the dentist -- despite his admission to cocaine possession -- did not acknowledge having a drug problem. She told Franz that he would be required to undergo a drug evaluation and must submit to any treatment recommended as a result of that review.

Denise Franz, 41, will also be required to undergo a drug evaluation.

Charles Franz chose not to speak in court yesterday and would not comment after the one-hour hearing.

Assistant State's Attorney Stephen W. Kagay Jr. began the hearing by reading an agreed-upon statement of facts, in which the Franzes acknowledged being in possession of cocaine when they were stopped by police Oct. 24.

The police, tipped by an employee at the dental office that the couple had drugs, put the couple under surveillance and pulled them over when their sport utility vehicle ran a stop sign.

Kagay said a subsequent search with the help of a drug-sniffing dog turned up small plastic bags containing cocaine in the couple's SUV and in Denise Franz's pocketbook. He said she attempted to discard one of the bags while police were conducting the search.

Kagay said a straw found in Charles Franz's shirt pocket also tested positive for traces of cocaine.

Gregg Bernstein, the dentist's attorney, objected to the statement about the straw but added, "We fully acknowledge his possession of cocaine."

Kagay said the state had agreed to drop a series of related charges, including possession of drug paraphernalia and the prescription painkiller OxyContin.

Bernstein and Steven Wrobel, representing Denise Franz, argued that their clients should get probation before judgment because they had no prior criminal records and because of their contributions to the community in providing dental care to needy city children.

Life, Bernstein said, is like a bank account. You build it up with good works, "and sometimes you have to draw on that account," he said.

Kagay said he did not object to probation for Denise Franz but argued that the dentist should be found guilty and sentenced because he represented a threat to public welfare, one of the standards set out in state law. Bernstein countered that it was up to the dental board, not the judge, to determine whether he was fit to practice.

"There is a forum, and they've taken action," Bernstein said. "The public welfare argument doesn't apply here."

Former patients of Franz -- some on hand to support the couple, others prepared to testify for the prosecution -- showed up for the hearing, but none was called to testify.

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