VA may allow prosecution of alleged drug dealers for overdose deaths

Under a new Virginia bill, alleged drug dealers could be criminally prosecuted for overdose deaths resulting from the use of drugs that they sold.

People who have been accused of selling drugs in Manassas may face various serious consequences, including driver's license loss, hefty fines and years of incarceration. Unfortunately, the sanctions that people face after drug-related convictions might only become more severe under a new Virginia bill, which seeks to hold alleged drug dealers responsible for deaths resulting from overdoses.

CBS News reports that state lawmakers are currently considering four bills that are intended to address drug crimes and curb the rising number of deaths involving prescription and illegal drugs. One bill, HB 1638, would give prosecutors the power to charge alleged drug dealers with murder if any of the substances that they sell contribute to a fatal overdose.

Liability in overdose deaths

The issue of an alleged drug dealer's liability in a drug-related death has been considered before in Virginia. According to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, last year, the Virginia Court of Appeals heard the case of a man who allegedly sold ecstasy pills that the buyer later overdosed on. The man was charged with felony murder and subsequently convicted.

Virginia law holds that a person who unintentionally kills someone in the course of committing a felony can be charged with felony murder. A lower court initially found that such a charge and conviction were warranted in this man's case. However, the appeals court found that the overdose death did not occur during the commission of the alleged crime. The person who consumed the drugs did so at another location, two hours later. The appeals court reversed the man's conviction on this ground.

This precedent could protect other people against similar charges in cases when an overdose occurred away from an alleged drug deal and outside of the alleged dealer's knowledge. However, if HB 1638 passes, prosecutors would be able to press charges even in cases like this one.

Potential negative ramifications

Unfortunately, the track records that similar laws have had elsewhere suggests that this legislation could have unintended consequences. If the bill passes, it could have sizable impacts on people with minimal criminal backgrounds, and it could lead to punishments that are disproportionate to a person's alleged actions.

The use of a similar law in New Jersey helps illustrate this issue. According to CNN, for several years, the state has observed a law that establishes strict liability for drug dealers in the event of overdose deaths. During the first 17 years after the law was enacted, more than 32 people were prosecuted under it. However, only three of them were real drug dealers. In 25 cases, personal friends of the person who overdosed were charged.

Even in cases that involve legitimate drug dealing, people convicted under this type of law could face unnecessarily severe sanctions, given their actual intentions and actions. In Virginia, people convicted of second-degree murder face imprisonment of 5 to 40 years. If the bill passes, people convicted under it could face these sanctions in addition to the usual consequences that come with a drug-related conviction.

Handling drug-related charges

This legislation underscores how seriously crimes involving drugs are taken in Virginia. Even if the bill fails to pass, a conviction of drug possession, manufacturing, trafficking or distribution can still have steep consequences. People who have been charged with this type of crime should consider protecting their long-term interests by meeting with a criminal defense attorney for advice on their legal options.

Keywords: drug crime, arrest, charges