As the heroin crisis in the U.S. and Maryland continues to rise, State’s attorneys are turning to a new method of policing to convict drug dealers: manslaughter charges. Several counties have begun to charge drug dealers with manslaughter charges in addition to possession with intent to distribute or distribution of narcotics when a drug user overdoses and dies from the heroin and the drugs can be traced back to a specific dealer. St. Mary’s County is one of the first to charge six individuals with manslaughter. Governor Hogan applauded the measures taken in St. Mary’s for getting tough on heroin dealers, as Maryland had over 2,000 overdose deaths last year. The rate of overdose deaths rose 37% so far in 2017, with 550 overdose deaths through March, compared to only 401 in 2016. This is due in part to the rise of the use of Fentanyl, a painkiller that is 50 times more powerful than heroin that is found on the street, and Carfentanyl, an elephant tranquilizer which is considered 10,000 times more powerful than heroin. Both Fentanyl and Carfentanyl are mixed with heroin to create a more potent high for the drug users.
Despite the tough words, it may be very difficult for these prosecutors to secure convictions for manslaughter. First, the biggest issue facing prosecutors is that the drug charges carry a greater penalty than manslaughter charges. For example, Distribution of Heroin and Possession with Intent to Distribute Heroin each carry a penalty of up to 20 years and a $25,000 fine for the first offense. The penalty is even greater if the defendant has a prior conviction. A Manslaughter charge only carries a penalty of 10 years and a $500 fine. So even if the prosecutor could prove that the defendant did commit the manslaughter related to the overdose and secured a conviction, the punishment to the defendant is much less than the drug charges they are already facing. A defendant would receive a stiffer sentence for the drug charges than the manslaughter charges. This has already occurred in Queen Anne’s County, where a defendant was charged with involuntary manslaughter related to an overdose death. The charge was dropped in lieu of a plea to distribution of heroin in which the defendant received a sentence of 16 years  , far more than the manslaughter charge. Second, it is much easier for a State’s attorney to secure a conviction for Possession with Intent to Distribute than manslaughter. A manslaughter charge would require the police to determine the whole backstory of the sale from the dealer to the user and then that the user overdosed on that specific dealer’s heroin. Comparable to finding a dealer with heroin and cash on him and a cell phone that shows he was selling drugs. The latter can be found in a single traffic stop or search, whereas the former would take a long investigation by a narcotics unit or detective which might only result in a conviction for a charge that has less time than a drug distribution charge.
If the legislature cracked down on dealers and increased the penalty for manslaughter to one greater than the distribution charges, then the manslaughter charges would be more justified and the police could vigorously go after the dealers for them. As long as manslaughter carries a 10-year penalty and distribution a 20-year one, Maryland State’s attorneys are just spinning their wheels on manslaughter charges when they can secure a conviction for distribution much easier than manslaughter.
- Brian Witte, Maryland Governor Applauds Murder Charges in Overdose Cases, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT (Aug. 9, 2017), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/maryland/articles/2017-08-09/maryland-officials-bringing-charges-in-drug-deaths
- Brad Bell, Drug dealer charged with murder in St. Mary’ County overdose deaths, ABC 7/WJLA, http://wjla.com/news/local/drug-dealers-charged-with-murder-in-st-marys-county-overdose-deaths
- See supra note 1.
- Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 5-608.
- Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 2-207.
- Angela Price, Centreville man charged with manslaughter in overdose deaths, The Star Democrat, (Jun. 14, 2017), http://www.stardem.com/spotlight/article_bc823dd7-5711-5ab6-b88a-7bc2083f1220.html
John Navalaney is a third-year day student at the University of Baltimore. He serves as a staff editor for Law Forum. His legal interests include criminal law and real estate law. In his spare time, John enjoys going to the beach and cheering on the Washington Redskins from the Charm City.