Heroin deaths highlight difference between immunity and murder

Is a drug dealer a murderer?

The climbing death toll of heroin overdoses has led prosecutors to aggressively pursue dealers when users end up dead. At the same time, officials have acknowledged addiction as a public health crisis, one that won’t be solved solely with arrests.

One way to save lives is to extend immunity to drug users who call for help if they witness an overdose. Pennsylvania does this in some cases under a 2014 “Good Samaritan” law.

But what if a dealer is a fellow drug user?

As The Washington Post notes, overdose victims are often given their deadly dose by friends or loved ones who are also users.

David Hickton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, has been vocal about the need for a robust response to the heroin crisis, including a focus on public health.

He also said that a person who supplies illegal drugs is committing “an act of violence,” according to the Post.

“It’s no different than a person who shoots somebody with a gun,” he said in the story.

In Allegheny County, which saw a surge in heroin deaths last year, a Penn Hills man was charged with homicide in November after selling fentanyl-laced heroin that led to a deadly overdose. That’s the first murder charge against a dealer here since state law was changed to make such cases easier to prove, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Under the change, prosecutors don’t need to prove malice. They only need to show that the drug was intentionally sold and that a death occurred.

Defendants face a maximum of 40 years in prison, which is identical to third-degree murder.

In September 2014, Pennsylvania lawmakers approved a measure to grant immunity for certain lower level drug crimes if the offender properly reports an overdose. Because drug users often gather in groups, the law is meant to reduce cases where users don’t report an overdose because they fear getting in trouble.

The immunity specifically does not apply to cases that could be prosecuted as homicide. In other words, protection depends on the survival of the overdose victim.

Other states show similar tension between tougher prosecutions and “Good Samaritan” laws.

From the Post:

Taken together, the swirl of sometimes conflicting new initiatives — efforts to get users into treatment instead of putting them in jail, the clampdown on suppliers and dealers, dramatic differences across state lines on what constitutes behavior worthy of a murder charge — reflects how the devastating speed of heroin’s wrath in large sections of the country has left authorities scrambling for solutions.

Tougher penalties coincide with the opposite acknowledgment by law enforcement officials that drug penalties leveled at non-violent offenders in the 80s and 90s led to swelling prisons.

Last summer, Hickton said that dealers who cause death could face federal penalties of up to life in prison.

“It doesn’t follow that to be smart on crime you have to be soft on crime,” Hickton told the Post.

As the story notes, federal prosecutions have previously focused on higher-level dealers linked to large quantities of drugs.

Now, prosecutors at the federal and local level are focusing more on whether heroin use results in death, even as they acknowledge that fixing the drug problem requires much more than incarceration.

Others, including Rutgers legal philosophy professor Douglas Husak, are troubled by the “murderer” label.

“To call people who sell heroin ‘murderers’ seems to distort what they’ve done,” he told the Post. “Call it like it is — they are drug dealers.”

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.