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***Update: August 12, 2013: Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have made a dramatic shift in recent months and are now doling out lengthy prison sentences to anyone in the drug supply chain involved in selling a substance (mainly heroin) to someone who subsequently dies from an overdose.
In an article for the Associated Press published just hours ago, Katie Zezima reports that prosecutors intend to be extremely aggressive in pursuing and punishing anyone involved in “causing” an overdose death. This means that numerous individuals could be convicted and receive prison sentences for the same overdose death.
This new zeal comes on the heels of a significant increase in the number of people using heroin and the number of people dying from related overdoses; 66% and 55% respectively. These figures are from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When we wrote the following article in late 2012, it was “possible” to be prosecuted if you’re involved in an overdose death. With these new changes in law enforcement and judicial practices, it’s now likely that severe charges will be brought against numerous individuals whenever possible. A prosecutor in Ocean County, New Jersey perhaps summed up the new attitude best when he was quoted as saying (1);
***Original Article from December, 2012:
Overdose deaths and drug-related suicides are all too common in the US, and prosecutors have often sought to make others pay the price if they are involved in a situation that ends with an overdose death. Even if you didn’t directly contribute to the death, involvement in any way can merit a criminal charge that could come with a severe prison sentence – even if the person ultimately survives the overdose. And considering that some areas of the country have a higher incidence of overdose deaths than deaths by car accident, understanding how your role in such an event could play out might mean the difference between one person dead and you in jail, and a bad situation totally avoided.
Be a Good Samaritan
Under some laws you can be prosecuted if you don’t do enough to help someone who has overdosed – even if you had no involvement in the actual drug procurement or consumption. This means that people who dump their overdosed friends outside of emergency rooms or critical care centers can face serious criminal consequences. Likewise, if someone you are with overdoses and you abandon them without seeking help, you could be held responsible for their death.
Passive Roles in Overdose Deaths
A passive role in an overdose death could warrant prosecution, but an active role will virtually ensure that the law will hold you accountable. For instance, if you help buy drugs with an overdose victim or buy drugs together, seriously liability exists on both of your parts. If you provide transportation to make a drug purchase or if you provide paraphernalia such as pipes or needles, you could also be held responsible.
Additionally, providing a place for drug use to occur – especially when the substance abuse is undertaken by minors – could make you liable in the event that someone overdoses or dies while under your care. This could also apply if you accompany another person to buy or use drugs, as was the case in Philadelphia when three men purchased and consumed heroin together. One of the men died and now one of the two survivors is being charged with “strict liability” for the man’s death.
Active Roles in Overdose Deaths
When the line is clear that you provided a drug to a person who then overdoses, a criminal complaint is almost assured, including charges of negligent homicide. For instance, a man in New Jersey who allegedly sold heroin to a man who then died of an overdose is facing up to 20 years in prison for his role in the man’s death. John Petrick wrote of the matter for NorthJersey.com:
“The prosecutor and judge handling the arraignment remarked in court that it was a rare invocation of a state law making it a first-degree crime when a drug dealer distributes to someone who overdoses.” (Petrick, John Paterson Man Accused of Dealing Heroin to Overdose Victim The Record 12/06/2012)
This indicates that authorities are beginning to hold more people accountable when their drug-related actions cause the death of others. Additionally, even more severe punishments may be meted out if the victim is deemed to be fragile, handicapped, disabled or otherwise in a state of danger.
Unfortunately, many overdose deaths – especially those related to opiates like heroin and Oxycontin – occur simply because people are too afraid that their involvement will lead to jail time. A common situation occurs where several people are doing drugs together when one of them overdoses. In many cases the other people present take no life-saving action because they fear legal reprisal. Consequently many people who have overdosed don’t get the help they need and die after hours of being unconscious. During this time, medical professionals can easily administer treatment that can reverse the effects of the drug and save the life of the OD victim.
Law enforcement and health care professionals have recognized this problem and have taken steps to mitigate it by creating Good Samaritan laws that remove fear of legal punishment. For instance, in California if you’re doing drugs with someone and they overdose, you can call 911, the police or fire department and request emergency assistance for the victim without fear of criminal charges. However, the law only covers minor drug related infractions- major infractions will likely still be punished. (California’s New Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Law Goes Into Effect January 2013 ENews Park Forest 12/17/2012)
California is the tenth state to enact such legislation in an effort to encourage people to get help when an overdose occurs.
Regardless of any potential criminal or civil liabilities, it’s critical to seek immediate emergency attention for someone who has overdosed. In many cases overdosing does not cause immediate death, so there is time to get help. Most hospital emergency rooms have access to drugs that can rapidly reverse the effects of an overdose and save the patient’s life. It’s not just your legal responsibility; it’s your moral responsibility as well.
(1) Zezima, Katie Dealers now being charged in drug overdose deaths The Associated Press 08/12/2013 Via Yahoo! Finance