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The Problem with Treating Opioid Overdoses as Homicides

January 14, 2020

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

There is a troubling trend in Pennsylvania. The opioid epidemic has spiraled out of control in the commonwealth, as it has all over the country. Furthermore, the state prosecution is using the high number of deaths to prosecute these deaths as homicides when someone distributes the drugs and another person dies as a result.

It’s understandable that the prosecution wants to get drug dealers off the streets. The problem is that most of the people they are prosecuting are not drug dealers. They are often friends and family members of those that have lost someone to the opioid crisis. Instead of dealing with the problem, these prosecutions are only making it worse.

Drug Delivery Resulting in Death

The crime of drug delivery resulting in death (DDRD) has been around for some time in Pennsylvania. In 2006 however, the statute was amended, making it easier for prosecutors to try and convict people under it. The statute was created with the intent to prosecute drug dealers, but today it is being used to punish those that need treatment, not prison sentences.

The statute defines the offense as administering, dispensing, delivering, giving, prescribing, selling, or distributing a controlled substance, causing another person to die as a result of using that substance. To prove the crime, the prosecution must only show that the defendant gave, sold, or administered the drug, and that the victim died as a result of using it. The prosecution does not have the burden of proving that the defendant intended a death to occur. That lack of malicious intent was the biggest change made to the statute in 2006.

The penalty for those convicted is harsh. A person could face between 20 and 40 years in state prison for simply purchasing drugs with another person, if that person died as a result of using the substance.

The Problems with Prosecuting DDRD Cases

The biggest problem is that the spike in convictions under the DDRD statute are not targeting individuals that the law originally intended. In Pennsylvania, 50 percent of the people charged with the crime between the year 2000 and 2017 were family members, friends, and caretakers of the people that have passed away. Three percent were doctors.

When a person falls into the category of that 50 percent, they often suffer from a substance abuse problem themselves. Prosecuting them is a return to the War on Drugs that did not work. Instead of getting these individuals the help they need, they are sentenced to prison, sometimes for the remainder of their lives, with no hope for rehabilitation.

Additionally, the high number of convictions is going to scare people away from getting help for their loved ones suffering from an overdose. With such high conviction rates and such harsh penalties, fewer people are going to report overdoses for fear that they will face these serious charges.

The only good news is that there are ways to defend DDRD charges, which means they can be challenged in court. A much better alternative though, is for the state to recognize the unfairness of prosecuting these cases, and hope that prosecutors will realize they do more harm than good when pursuing them.

Charged with Drug Delivery Resulting in Death? Call Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorneys

The number of charges for drug delivery resulting in death are climbing in Pennsylvania, putting more people behind bars instead of getting them the help they need. If you’ve been charged with this offense, call our Allentown criminal defense attorneys at van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim at (215) 486-0123. We know how unfair these charges are, and we know the defenses to use against them to give you the best chance of a successful outcome. We also offer free consultations, so call today so we can get started reviewing your case.


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