New Hampshire AG Seeks Life Sentences for Dealers in Overdose Death Cases

By Paul Gaita 05/31/16

Attorney General Joseph Foster's punitive push may lock dealers away but it will not prevent the issue of overdose.

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New Hampshire AG Seeks Life Sentences for Dealers in Overdose Death Cases

While New Hampshire seeks to wrest greater control over a mounting epidemic of overdose deaths from heroin and fentanyl through 24-hour support hotlines and expanded drug courts, the state’s attorney general has been pushing for courts to treat drug overdoses as crime scenes, and to make dealers criminally accountable for any death that may result from the drugs they sell. New Hampshire AG Joseph Foster has made prosecuting opioid overdose deaths a priority in his office since late 2015, and announced in April a partnership with the Office of the United States Attorney for the District of New Hampshire to aggressively push for criminal charges in such cases. 

At least 40 overdose cases have been referred to his office in the past six months. The latest involves Nashua, New Hampshire resident Kevin Manchester who was indicted on May 18 on multiple charges of possession and sales/dispersal of fentanyl. One of these charges is linked to the January 22 death of Michelle MacLeod, who died from an overdose of fentanyl purchased from Manchester. Under New Hampshire law RSA 318-B Controlled Drug Act, such a sale would generate a charge of "Acts Prohibited, Death Resulting," which carries a possible maximum sentence of life with the possibility of parole in state prison. 

Foster expects that more cases like this will be tried in New Hampshire courts in the months to come, especially after the launch of a training program in June that will teach police officers how to properly identify overdose cases as crime scenes. He has also asked for $115,000 for an additional prosecutor to handle overdose cases. Foster’s policies echo similar efforts in states like New Jersey and Wisconsin, which seek to charge dealers with murder in overdose cases. Other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, have passed or are in the process of passing similar laws.

Foster’s announcements have generated some criticism from the legal and justice reform communities. Concord, New Hampshire defense attorney Jim Moir described the Death Resulting charges as “basically saying, ‘let’s try to scare the drug dealers into not dealing,'” while Art Way, senior director of criminal justice reform strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, called Foster’s efforts “backwards punitive policy that doesn’t prevent the issue of overdose.” 

For Foster, his campaign is common sense for a state that lost more than 400 of its residents to drug overdoses in 2015 alone—the bulk of them attributed to fentanyl. “If somebody knows what they’re selling is deadly, I don’t see it as a lot different than selling poison to somebody,” he stated. He added that a dealer’s personal circumstances would also be taken into consideration during the sentencing phase. At his arraignment in February, Manchester claimed that addiction had driven him to dealing, and asked for help through a treatment program if given the chance. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.