The opioid crisis across the country is something that all levels of government – from city mayors up to the White House – have been grappling with for the past year. Fatal overdoses have overwhelmed municipal resources, and now there are fingers pointing at the powerful pharmaceutical drug lobby. Yet the crisis continues to evolve, with more people getting swept up in its negative side effects – bystanders to fatal overdoses getting criminally charged.
In one case out of Philadelphia, two neighbors were addicted to the same drug – heroin. One night, J.M., the neighbor, asked Alexandria Santa Barbara to get him some heroin and handed her $10.00. She got the heroine for him, but it was laced with Fentanyl, a powerful and deadly synthetic drug. Whether or not she knew it, her neighbor would die from this ‘hit’ of heroin. She is now in jail, waiting for her trial on third-degree murder charges.
Delaware County prosecutors have brought the charges of drug delivery resulting in death, a first-degree felony. If convicted, Ms. Santa Barbara faces between 20 and 40 years in prison. She is not the only who has been charged with this third-degree murder crime. In 2013, the number of people charged with this murder from an accidental overdose was 15. In 2017, that number stood at 205. This is a microcosm of reality across the nation. Twenty states have drug-induced murder laws which criminalize when someone helps another get drugs which result in their death. Another 13 states have either created or strengthened their drug-induced homicide regimes.
Most of the existing laws are a vestige of the fight against the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Prosecutors are relying on them more frequently to deter opioid users and sellers – a crisis which has taken over 63,000 Americans in 2016. Of course, the action has staunch critics. Those who are against the use of this law balk at the stretched definition of ‘dealer,’ citing that the person getting charged is usually someone who frequently shared their stash with the victim, and if things had happened differently, the other person could have died instead.
What makes these cases even more unusual is that sometimes, these defendants tried to save the person or called 911 for help. Usually, Good Samaritan laws mean that if someone administers aid, they receive immunity from prosecution. But, drug-induced homicide is an exception to this principle. Critics point to this as having a chilling effect, meaning that someone could die unnecessarily because the supplier was too scared to call for help. They also point to the fact that there is little to no evidence that enforcing these kinds of laws serve as any sort of effective deterrent.
Prosecutors and law enforcement remain sold on it, believing that the threat of serious jail time would scare casual buyers from exchanging money for drugs. The prosecution is always somewhat easier because the state does not have to prove intent. They just have to show that the drugs given to the victim were lethal and caused their death. This makes it even more challenging for criminal defense lawyers to show that their clients were not responsible for the death of an addict.