Overdoses Increasingly Lead To Criminal Charges

By Kelly Burch 07/03/18

Family members and the public aren’t convinced that prosecuting friends—who are often on drugs themselves—is the best use of resources. 

patient on gurney being pushed through a hospital corridor by doctors & nurses

When someone dies from an overdose it is undeniably a tragedy, but is there someone to blame? Increasingly, the answer—legally speaking—is yes.

It’s becoming more common for authorities to charge family members, friends and dealers with homicide for their role in securing drugs, or even their presence when the drugs were taken, according to a report by The New York Times

“I look at it in a real micro way,” Pete Orput, the chief prosecutor in Washington County outside Minneapolis, told the paper. “You owe me for that dead kid.”

Mark S. Rubin, a county attorney in Minnesota who has brought charges related to overdoses, said that the situation is complicated, but ultimately there is criminal responsibility. 

“People agree, you know, there’s nobody forcing someone to take the controlled substance. But somebody might agree to take it from their friend or their boyfriend or girlfriend and they end up dying because of it,” Rubin said. “We feel that constitutes a crime of possibly murder in the third degree, but at least manslaughter in the second degree.”

The Times found that in 15 states that keep records, there have been more than 1,000 charges of homicides related to overdose deaths since 2015. Between 2015 and 2017, prosecutions of this nature nearly doubled.

While law enforcement officials say that this tough approach is justified and will stem the use of drugs, family members and the public aren’t convinced that prosecuting friends—who are often on drugs themselves—is the best use of resources. 

“It’s kind of like blaming the leaves on the tree, you know?” said Michael Malcolm, of Breckenridge, Colorado, whose younger son was charged with the death of his brother, who overdosed on drugs that the boys had bought together online. “What about the roots?”

The Times investigation found that charges are brought under a variety of laws. Twenty states have specifically made delivering drugs that result in death a crime. Others use standard homicide and manslaughter charges. In some cases, friends and family have been charged with dealing or distributing drugs, even if they did not exchange drugs for money with the person who died. 

“State laws vary, but drug ‘distribution’ or ‘delivery’ is generally not limited to selling,” the Times reporters wrote in an accompanying question and answer piece. “It can include sharing drugs, giving them away, or having a friend pay you back for drugs you bought.”

Many states have Good Samaritan laws, which are meant to protect the person who calls 911 when someone is overdosing. Often, these laws protect someone who may also be using, but if that person was involved in securing the drugs that caused the overdose they can still be charged, according to the report. Vermont and Delaware are the only states that explicitly protect callers from prosecution.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.