Heroin Overdose Prosecutions: Sentencing and Case Issues
As many are aware, drug overdose deaths (especially from heroin) are sadly on the rise. The increase might also lead to a larger number of criminal prosecutions. I will discuss this issue as well as a couple issues that could arise in the prosecution of these types of cases.
Sentencing: Federal ProsecutionsPursuant to Title 21, United States Code, Section 841(b)(1)(C), an individual who distributes heroin resulting in death or serious bodily injury faces a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison (and up to life imprisonment). In this situation, there is no requirement that the person intended for the death or serious bodily injury to occur nor is there a requirement that the person sold the heroin in exchange for money. An individual who simply distributes or shares heroin with another person who subsequently suffers serious bodily injury or dies as a result of that heroin could be charged in federal court under the statute referenced above.
Sentencing: North Carolina ProsecutionsFurthermore, North Carolina also holds individuals who unlawfully distribute heroin (as well as other substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine) accountable when the ingestion of the heroin leads to death. Pursuant to North Carolina General Statutes Section 14-17, a person who distributes heroin to another and the recipient uses that heroin and dies from such use or ingestion could be charged with second-degree murder. The defendant could face at least 94-125 months and up to 157-201 months in prison even with no prior criminal record.
As a result, both heroin dealers and heroin addicts who share their drugs with others (that suffer serious bodily injury or die from using the heroin) face serious consequences and need to be aware of the potential punishments.
Case Issues: CausationIn federal court, an individual who distributes heroin that results in the recipient's death faces a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. The Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the heroin was a "but for" cause of the death. In Burrage v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 881, 891-92 (2014), the United States Supreme Court held that in this situation a controlled substance cannot merely be a contributing cause but instead must be an "independently sufficient cause" of the death.
In some overdose cases, a decedent might have used several substances (e.g. heroin and cocaine) around the time of his/her death. If, for example, there is evidence that a defendant distributed the heroin but not the other substance, then the Government must offer sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the heroin was a "but for" cause of the death and not merely a contributing cause (along with the other substance). In this situation, the medical examiner would likely become a key trial witness for the Government. Thus, causation is an important issue in overdose prosecutions.
(As a side note, in United States v. Alvarado, 816 F.3d 242 (4th Cir. 2016), the Fourth Circuit held that, following the Burrage case cited above, the Government does not have to prove that a user's death was foreseeable to the defendant. This means that a defendant does not have to intend or anticipate that the recipient will die from an overdose upon distributing heroin to the recipient.)
Case Issues: Multiple SourcesAnother key issue could arise when there is evidence that a decedent received heroin from multiple supply sources. If, for example, the Government only charged one supply source, then the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the heroin from that supply source (the defendant) caused the decedent's death. Some heroin dealers stamp (mark) the heroin they distribute. When there is evidence that a decedent received heroin from different sources (e.g. heroin with separate stamps was present in different rooms of the decedent's residence), then there might be a question whether the decedent used the heroin from the defendant charged in the case. Attorneys handling these types of cases should review the evidence carefully to determine whether this presents a possible avenue to defend an overdose prosecution.
DisclaimerThe information included in this Guide is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and, therefore, does not create an attorney/client relationship with anyone.