Insights into Opioid-related Murder Charges
There is no doubt that the opioid epidemic is on the rise in North Carolina. Opioid and heroin-related cases of overdose have nearly doubled in the past year. Emergency rooms in suburban neighborhoods continue to see an increase as young adults (most men) find themselves on the losing end in the battle of addiction.
Drug dealers often face stiff penalties if convicted for trafficking in the sale of narcotics. But can an individual actually be charged with “murder” for simply selling drugs to someone who later overdoses and dies?
Yes, by the looks of it.
In late July, a grand jury indicted a Winston-Salem man for second degree murder after selling heroin to another man who died from an overdose the next day.
As the problems surrounding opioid addiction continue to grow, we are likely to see a surge in cases like this where the individual who provided or sold the offending substance finds themselves in legal hot water facing a charge of second degree murder.
Obviously, every life is valuable and the loss of anyone to drug addiction is a tragedy, but murder?
I mean, seriously… murder?
Earlier this year, a Rhode Island man was sentenced to 20 years in prison with another 20 years to serve on probation in his role as a supplier of the synthetic opioid and potentially lethal drug fentanyl which led to the overdose of a young woman.
Now, second degree murder in Rhode Island has a much broader scope than in North Carolina, but to be sure, there is a growing trend of prosecutors set on charging drug traffickers and suppliers with murder in an effort to stem the growing tide of overdoses across the nation.
Unlike Rhode Island, in order to prove second degree murder in North Carolina, the prosecution must prove “malice”. According to North Carolina Statute 14-7(b), the State needs to prove that the defendant “recklessly and wantonly so as to manifest a mind utterly without regard for human life and social duty and deliberately bent on mischief.”
Malice is a difficult element to prove. Just selling drugs in and of itself is not enough to prove malice. A district attorney needs additional evidence to prove malice.
Because this is such a recent phenomenon, there really isn’t much case law on the subject at the moment. Until more cases are tried and adjudicated, we really won’t know how successful these types of charges will be.
Still, even if a second-degree murder charge seems out of the question, district attorneys may try to use such charges as leverage in an effort to gain a plea bargain deal.
In the Rhode Island case, Superior Court Judge Kristin Rodgers said the case should serve as a warning claiming, “It should send a message to drug dealers.”
As an experienced Raleigh drug lawyer I think this is very dangerous ground for prosecutors to explore. Granted, more than 20 states have some type of drug-induced homicide laws already on the books, most were passed years ago during the hey-day of the war on drugs and few have been prosecuted.
It seems that prosecutors now wish to dust off these statues and apply them in earnest.
And while the idea of reducing opioid overdoses by aggressively prosecuting dealers, there is no conclusive evidence that this will be the result.
In fact, a report by the Drug Policy Alliance says there is no evidence that the laws reduce overdoses or drug use. Instead, the report says the laws often ensnare friends or family members who were just sharing their drugs, not professional dealers.
Such initiatives may further erode the protections granted under Good Samaritan laws, which encourage people to call 911 to report someone who is overdosing.
At Kurtz & Blum, PLLC, our drug defense attorneys are aggressively ready to defend your case against malicious prosecution and over-reaching by prosecutors. If you or someone you know is dealing with a serious drug offense, please give us a call today at 919-832-7700 to set up a free initial consultation.
- The Controversy Over Charging Drug Dealers with Murder After Overdoses, NPR.org. June 17, 2017
- Suspected NC heroin dealer charged with murder after man ODs, WNCN.com. July 28, 2017
- Opioid-and-heroin-related overdoses in NC nearly double from last year, Nash sheriff says, WRALcom. July 26, 2017