The number of Ohioans dying from fatal heroin overdoses has quadrupled since 2008. While addicts have more paths to treatment, state leaders and local prosecutors have begun to go after the epidemic’s source: the drug dealers. Dealers could face lengthy prison terms. But there are legal questions.
As fatal heroin overdoses in Ohio near 1,000 per year, police and prosecutors are changing tactics.
Take the case of 24-year-old Courtney Penix. She was an overdose victim. She died this spring in a grocery store restroom. Rather than ending the case there, investigators looked for who sold Penix the drugs.
“We’re able to look at text messages on their phone, phone calls on the phone, talking to friends and relatives of the deceased to determine who she may have been buying the drugs from," Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said. "And then putting that together with the text messages they’re able, as I say, to connect the dots.”
O’Brien said those dots led to 26-year-old Jamie Maynard. Investigators say Maynard sold Penix the heroin, and a grand jury indicted Maynard on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. If convicted of multiple charges, Maynard faces up to 19 years in prison.
O’Brien expects more drug dealers to be indicted as the heroin epidemic rages on. Local authorities are dedicating more time to fatal drug overdose cases.
To fight the heroin epidemic, states around the country are looking to “Drug delivery resulting in death” laws, as they’re called. The laws vary from state to state and so do the punishments.
In Pennsylvania, a drug dealer could get 40 years in prison. In Michigan, it could be life.
Ohio State Representative Jim Butler wanted to increase the state’s penalty when a drug sale leads to a fatal overdose. He filed a bill to charge the dealer with aggravated murder with the possibility of a life in prison.
“It needs to be, in my opinion, a very severe offense, or otherwise the deterrent’s not there because a lot of these dealers just do a risk-benefit analysis, and they know they’re making so much money, especially with the bigger dealers, and to them it’s worth the risk of just small amount of prison time," Butler said.
Butler’s bill stalled in the senate late last year.
For Harvard Law School Professor Ronald Sullivan, charging a drug dealer with murder raises concerns. Sullivan said these “drug delivery resulting in death” laws often don’t meet the criminal liability requirements: guilty act, intent and causation.
“Is it reasonably foreseeable that everyone who takes or ingests cocaine or heroin, is it reasonably foreseeable that they will die of an overdose? And that’s a question that the fact-finder and the judge in the case will have to wrestle with," Sullivan said.
And Sullivan added that there's another potential roadblock when prosecuting these kinds of cases, even ones like Jamie Maynard, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter.
“The other question is the fact that the person who received the heroin or the drug, that they injected it or ingested it, is that an intervening cause, breaking the causal link between the seller and them. And that’s another thing that these courts are going to have to work out," he said.
Prosecutor O’Brien said he doesn’t see any legal or constitutional issues with charging drug dealers with involuntary manslaughter. But he’s not in favor of elevating the charge to murder.
“The person who sold it they really don’t intend for the person to die because they’d like to keep them as a customer for future purposes, for that reason alone," he said. "But they’re just engaged in the illicit sale of drugs and really aren’t intending the death of a person.”
Representative Butler acknowledged the legal hurdles, being able to prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt. And that’s why he said he turned his attention toward increasing penalties for drug traffickers altogether.
“And not relating it to the overdose death because you have to typically prove proximate cause. So the intent part we can fix in the drafting," Butler said. "But you still have to prove that that drug sold was the reason why, or was mainly the reason why somebody overdosed.”
So far, Maynard is the only alleged drug dealer in Franklin County recently to be indicted in an overdose death.