The shortest answer is, Yes. In Massachusetts, you can be held criminally liable for distributing or delivering opioids to someone who then dies of an overdose.
However, it’s important to note that more than half of these types of cases involve addicted users pooling their resources in order to obtain opiates that they then use separately or together.
In such circumstances, it does not stand to reason that the state participate in overdose prosecutions, as better results can be had when an addicted drug user seeks treatment, education and support.
The opioid epidemic is pushing the judiciary and legislature in this logical direction and numerous drug courts and recovery programs are being implemented across the Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, some drug users will still find it necessary to mount a strong legal defense and fight for their rights after becoming ensnared in a death by overdose event.
How Can I Be Held Criminally Responsible for Someone’s Accidental Overdose?
Prosecutors generally argue that because opiates are inherently dangerous and pose significant risk of injury and death, anyone aiding another in illegally obtaining opioids is acting with reckless disregard for the individual’s safety.
This kind of culpability can be legally charged as involuntary manslaughter in a death by overdose case. MA law defines involuntary manslaughter as an unlawful killing unintentionally caused by reckless or wanton conduct.
In order to prove overdose manslaughter, the prosecution has to prove that you intended to act recklessly through your actions of delivering (or distributing) the drug.
Drug Distribution and Possession with Intent to Distribute
It is not possible to hold someone responsible for another’s overdose without first establishing a link between the accused and the drugs taken by the victim that caused their subsequent death by overdose. This link is established in the eyes of the law through drug distribution and/or possession with intent to distribute.
Under M.G.L. c. 94C §1, distributing drugs is broadly defined as “To deliver other than by administering or dispensing a controlled substance.”
The courts have further interpreted that the distribution or delivery of drugs can occur without regard to any money changing hands. This means prosecutors can attempt to hold you criminally liable for an overdose death for:
- Sharing the drug with the victim
- Giving the drug to the victim
- Doing the drugs with the victim
- Pooling money with the victim to purchase the drugs, and/or
- Communicating with the victim about how/when/where to get the drugs.
Police frequently report various types of circumstantial evidence during an open overdose investigation that implicates a transfer of drugs between individuals. Increasingly, drug possession with intent evidence is collected from the decedent’s and defendant’s cellphones.
Does MA Have a Drug Induced Homicide Law?
No. There are no criminal statutes in Massachusetts that specifically address “drug-induced homicide.” While some 20 states do have drug induced homicide as a statutory offense, MA does not. However, an overdose resulting in another’s death can still be prosecuted under manslaughter laws, and this is more likely to occur when illegally obtained opioids such as heroin and fentanyl are involved.
I shared drugs with a friend at a party. How does that make me a drug dealer?
It doesn’t. In practical terms, drug users who share resources and drugs for the sole purpose of getting high do not qualify as drug dealers. However, this may not hinder state prosecutors from charging an opioid addict as criminally culpable when an overdose death occurs.
You will need a solid legal defense to protect your freedoms and rights should you be accused of an overdose homicide.
You should immediately seek the dedicated assistance of an experienced Massachusetts criminal defense attorney if:
- You or a loved one believe you may be charged with an overdose crime,
- You have already been charged with any offense wherein a death by overdose occurred or may occur,
- You have been questioned by police / detectives regarding your involvement in an accidental overdose, or
- Any of the above applies, and you or your loved one need addiction recovery care in lieu of prosecution.
Good Samaritan Law in Massachusetts
Overdose homicide prosecutions are counterintuitive to Massachusetts’ Good Samaritan Laws. These laws prohibit bringing drug possession charges against people who call 911 for overdose assistance for themselves or another.
Good Samaritan laws in Massachusetts are vital because they provide protection from criminal prosecution for drug possession to those who render life-saving assistance and/or those who call 911 seeking help for an overdose.
M.G.L. c.94C §34A provides immunity for any Good Samaritan and overdose victim from the following:
- Being charged or arrested for straight possession;
- Prosecution for simple drug possession;
- Being charged or prosecuted for being present where heroin is kept.
The law does not protect persons against:
- Reckless or grossly negligent behavior;
- Drug Trafficking charges;
- Drug distribution charges, or
- Possession with Intent to Distribute
The general Good Samaritan law in Massachusetts protects against civil liability and states that:
No person who, in good faith, provides or obtains, or attempts to provide or obtain, assistance for a victim of a crime as defined in section one, shall be liable in a civil suit for damages as a result of any acts or omissions in providing or obtaining, or attempting to provide or obtain, such assistance unless such acts or omissions constitute willful, wanton or reckless conduct.
The overdose good samaritan law was enacted in 2016 under M.G.L. c112 §12FF. It provides additional protection from liability for acts or omissions related to administering naloxone (Narcan) or another opioid antagonist to someone who is believed to be overdosed.
Criminal Defense for Drug-induced Homicide
A death by overdose is tragic and traumatic for everyone involved. In the aftermath, survivors need time to grieve and to heal, and those closest to the event may need open support to seek recovery services. An overdose prosecution stands in the way of those needs.
A criminal defense attorney with a successful background in representing drug offenders and homicide defendants can offer help to someone facing a drug induced homicide charge by:
- Gaining access to all of the state’s evidence in the case;
- Objectively analyzing and evaluating state’s evidence;
- Preparing a Joint-User defense;
- Demonstrating mitigating factors such as rescue efforts provided by the defendant;
- Working directly with the court to advocate for treatment instead of incarceration;
- Using forensics and toxicology reports to show lack of direct causation; and
- Challenging the scientific evidence through special motions.
If you, or someone you love, have questions about possible involvement in an overdose homicide case, please do not hesitate to give my law office a call. We may be able to help immediately by answering some of your questions during a free initial consultation.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You need to consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. We encourage you to contact us if you feel you will be charged with a criminal offense. Contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship.