Court sets limits on when a fatal overdose can form the basis of a manslaughter conviction

Earlier this month the Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Carrillo overturned an involuntary manslaughter conviction for an individual who had given heroin to his roommate who then died of an overdose. This prosecution is not unique to Massachusetts; it reflects a growing trend seen across the country where people who give or sell drugs to someone who then fatally overdoses are prosecuted for the death. Mr. Carrillo was convicted after trial but the Court held that the jury did not hear sufficient evidence to support a manslaughter conviction.

For someone to be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused engaged in conduct that creates “a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another.” The Court acknowledged that there is inherent risk that someone will suffer a fatal overdose from heroin or similar drugs, but this case did not involve circumstances that made Carrillo’s conduct “wanton or reckless” which is a requirement for a manslaughter conviction. The Court explained that to prevail on a manslaughter conviction, the Government must also introduce evidence showing that the accused knew or should have known that their conduct created a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm or death. The Court gave some examples of evidence that could have demonstrated that Carrillo should have known that there was a high likelihood of an overdose. For example, had Carrillo known that the heroin was unusually potent, that could have met the Government’s burden. Another example given was that if Carrillo had known that his roommate had overdosed but failed to seek help, he could be found guilty of manslaughter.

That final example of evidence that would support a conviction was particularly interesting to me. One of the prime public health/safety objections to charging people who share or sell drugs with manslaughter is that people will not seek medical intervention when someone is overdosing out of fear of prosecution. Instead of calling 911, the person who gave or sold the drugs to the person in medical distress is more likely to leave the person to die.

I hope that the Massachusetts legislature doesn’t follow another trend in this country which is to create strict liability laws for drug-induced deaths. Strict liability offenses are actions that are criminal regardless of the person’s intentions. So a strict liability law involving drug-induced death would allow for the person who gave the drugs to the person who overdosed to be held criminally responsible for their death regardless of their knowledge or awareness of the actual risk of harm to the victim. The United States cannot incarcerate itself out of the opioid epidemic, just as it didn’t manage to incarcerate itself out of other drug epidemics. Strict liability laws make it even less likely that people will seek help for their friends and customers if they are in trouble. Every state already has harsh penalties for people who distribute drugs (which includes social sharing) and those laws are available for use against the accused. Punishing people for another’s death with no showing of wanton, reckless. or intentional conduct compounds the tragedy of the death with the additional tragedy of an unjust conviction.