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Drug charges escalate to homicide charges in opioid overdoses

New Hampshire has turned to a new training program and to an existing but little-used charge against drug dealers who allegedly cause overdoses that result in death to their customers. The drug charges can carry up to a life sentence. In the current environment of an opioid drug dependence epidemic, police training in this area makes a lot of sense to local law enforcement agencies.

The program was initiated by the outgoing state attorney general. It teaches investigators how to trace bad drugs to the source and make an arrest of the dealer and/or large supplier. The program takes the clues remaining at the drug overdose location and uses them as part of a larger inquiry.

The blueprint for the program has been disseminated to investigators nationwide. It is another example of how local law enforcement is coming together in communities throughout the country to confront the thousands of overdose deaths now plaguing the nation. Many states have joined New Hampshire in filing homicide charges against dealers and suppliers to cut off the problem at the root source. At least, that is the theory that motivates the program.

It is not, however, easy to prove a homicide charge against a dealer. For one thing, the issue of criminal intent must be proved. Harder than that is the necessity of showing causation between the drug sale and the individual's overdose death. Perhaps these are the reasons why this kind of criminal connection has not been a target of prosecution for so many years.

With the specter of life sentences against their clients, defense counsel in New Hampshire and nationally are implementing established legal doctrines to counter the widespread prosecutorial net. With respect to elevating potential drug charges into homicide charges, defense attorneys will continue to argue that there are many intervening causes that may interfere with proof of causation. For example, a combination of drugs may have been used by the decedent. In other cases, it may be difficult to prove that it was the defendant's product that actually was in the decedent's system at death.   

Source:, "NH leads effort to view overdoses as crime scenes", Kathleen Ronayne, March 25, 2017

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