Drug Dealers Could Face Murder Charges Under 'Death By Distribution' Law

Jul 18, 2019

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A new state law creates harsher penalties for those who illegally sell drugs that result in a fatal overdose.

Under the "death by distribution" law, drug dealers can be charged with second degree murder if someone overdoses on an illegal substance they've sold.

Prosecutors won't need to prove the seller acted with malice. The new felony charges carry a sentence of up to 19 years for a first offense, and up to 40 years for a repeat offense.

Ben David is the district attorney for Pender and New Hanover counties, a region hard hit by the opioid epidemic.

"I've had eight people die of overdoses from heroin and fentanyl in my district in just this month, so it's not a theoretical conversation for us," he said.

David supports the new law. He says dropping the burden of proving malice will be key to securing convictions in court.

"If there's a seller who is delivering drugs that are known to be deadly, like heroin and fentanyl, they should be held responsible for the foreseeable consequence of someone passing away," he said.

In addition to securing convictions in overdose deaths, he hopes the new law and harsher penalties will act as a deterrent to drug dealers without unfairly targeting drug users.

"We're going after traffickers and dealers who are consciously aware of the deadly consequences that their product is bringing about and doing it anyway because they value money over human life," he said.

But not everyone supports the new law.

"The problem is that (the law) doesn't take the complexity of the issue into account," said Virgil Hayes, with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. "It doesn't factor in that a number of people who struggle with addiction also sell drugs."

Hayes said similar laws enacted elsewhere have largely prosecuted friends and family members of overdose victims, not high-level traffickers.

"It's not surprising, given that common practice among injection drug users, that those impacted by this law have, for the most part, been the type of people the law aims to protect," said Hayes. 

David argues authorities aren't looking to prosecute friends and family members of overdose victims, and can use discretion in deciding who to bring charges against.

"Absolutely we have discretion, that's the most important tool that police and prosecutors have," said David. "I think with any power comes the duty to use it gracefully and make sure that we don't discourage the very important policy of people reaching out for help when they need it."

Hayes says there's no guarantee district attorneys throughout the state will approach the new law with restraint. He also worries that, despite the state's Good Samaritan law offering limited immunity to those seeking help for overdose victims, drug users will be increasingly reluctant to call for help during an overdose for fear of prosecution.

"We cannot pursue punishment at the expense of the lives of the people who we're claiming to protect, and that's what this law does," said Hayes. "It does not make it safer for people to call 911."

Instead of tougher laws and longer sentences, Hayes and other harm reduction advocates point to programs, like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which helps those facing drug crimes find social services programs instead of serving jail time.

David believes the policy approach to the opioid epidemic should to be two-fold: more money for drug treatment and tougher laws for drug dealers.

"We're not fighting a war on drugs," he said. "We're fighting a war on drug dealers."

The new law goes into effect December 1.