Drug overdose is a serious issue in the United States and overdose is a leading cause of death for people under the age of 50. In 2017 alone over 72,000 people died as the result of a drug overdose in the US. To combat this growing problem, drug induced homicide statutes are merged. While these statutes of been around for quite some time, the increasing volume of overdose deaths have caused local prosecutors offices to increase the frequency of pursuing low level drug dealers as well as individuals who don’t fit the characterization of a dealer for these allegations.
The majority of drug induced homicide cases don’t involve traditional drug dealers but rather friends, families, and co-users of the overdosed decedent. In states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, these criminal statutes are strict liability statutes which require no criminal intent but only that the prosecution establish the actual sale or distribution to the decedent and causation with regards to the death.
How serious is this criminal charge?
In Pennsylvania, drug delivery resulting in death is a felony of the 1st degree under Title 18 § 2506. If convicted, the person faces a maximum sentence of up to 40 years. In the Commonwealth, the prosecution is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused intentionally sold or delivered a controlled substance (i.e. heroin, cocaine, even prescription drugs) and another person died because of using the substance. It is important to keep in mind that a person can be charged and convicted of this offense even if an autopsy reveals that a combination of drugs existed in the persons system at the time of their passing.
Courts have ruled that criminal responsibility is properly established when an individual’s conduct is a substantial factor in producing the death even though other factors combined with that conduct ultimately caused that death.
What are the defenses?
There are 2 very strong defenses available for individuals accused of this felony drug charge – joint user defense and attacking causation.
Joint User Defense
The joint user defense can undermine the distribution charge that is essential to achieve the drug induced homicide charge. The joint use doctrine provides that 2 individuals who jointly acquire possession of a drug for their own use, intending to only share it, are guilty only of the crime of drug possession without any intent to distribute the drug any further. This is an ungraded misdemeanor offense. The legal basis of this rule is that users who jointly acquire drugs to use with each other are either in constructive or actual possession of the drug and a person cannot distribute the drug to someone already in possession of it.
Criminal Courts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey will consider the following factors if this defense is asserted:
- Relationship of the parties
- The statement and conduct of the parties
- The degree of control exercised by one over the other
- Whether the parties traveled and purchased the drug together
- The quantity of drugs involved
- Whether one party had sole possession of the controlled dangerous substance for any significant length of time
This is a fact sensitive analysis. While criminal judges evaluate all issues of law during a trial, issues of fact are for a jury to decide unless a defendant elects to pursue a bench trial as opposed to a jury trial.
With regard to causation, the prosecution in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not have to establish that a specific drug necessarily killed the individual through an overdose, they still must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused sold or gave the drug in question. This can be extremely difficult in the cases of long-time drug users especially in situations where deceased are found with drug paraphernalia which contains no distinctive markings or stamps.
If you’re charged with drug delivery resulting in death, it is very important that your criminal defense attorney not only look at causation but also the joint user defense. The causation defense should challenge any scientific findings which would include autopsy and toxicology results.