Ruling hurts in Modesto needle exchange case

A judge ruled Monday that two people arrested for handing out clean syringes to drug users and collecting dirty ones will be barred from telling a jury they did so to help prevent a public health emergency.

Kristy Tribuzio, 36, and Brian Robinson, 38, face up to a year in jail after undercover officers said they caught the two operating an unauthorized needle exchange in a south Modesto park in April 2009.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova said the pair had other options that were legal, such as lobbying local officials to change the law. In September 2008, the county Board of Supervisors voted against legalizing needle exchange programs over the recommendation of county health officials.

"Frankly, this is a political decision with which the defendants disagreed," Córdova said.

Tribuzio called Córdova's decision "insulting."

"This doesn't have anything to do with politics," she said. "It's a public health issue."

During a nearly two-hour hearing, Tribuzio and Robinson's defense team argued their clients were acting out of medical necessity: that conducting a needle exchange program was a justified act aimed at saving lives and preventing such diseases as HIV and hepatitis C among drug users.

Nearly two dozen needle exchange activists from Oakland, Sacramento, Fresno and Modesto were in court for the ruling.

Tribuzio's attorney, Alonzo Gradford, likened the rate of new hepatitis C cases in Stanislaus County -- nearly 12 per week -- to a ticking bomb.

"People are dying every day as a result of dirty needles," Gradford said. "That's an imminent emergency."

Prosecutor Merrill Hoult said the defendants knew what they were doing was illegal and operated the needle exchange as an act of civil disobedience.

"We have a systematic breaking of the law," Hoult said. "Needle exchanges may have been legal in other counties, but it's illegal here."

In California, there are more than 40 needle exchange programs, but the Central Valley has just three, according to the state Department of Public Health. Fresno County approved a needle exchange pilot program in December 2008.

Robinson's attorney, Ruben Villalobos, described the scene in Mono Park on a recent afternoon. He said he and an investigator found four dirty needles left in the park, nicknamed "Needle Park" and "Heroin Park."

"If we were in another county, what Mr. Robinson did would be perfectly legal," Villalobos said. "We as a society have decided you can't do it."

Tribuzio and Robinson will be back in court Aug. 2 for the setting of their trial date.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at or 578-2337.