Bystanders To Fatal Overdoses Increasingly Becoming Criminal Defendants Prosecutors in 20 states are using old laws to file homicide charges to hold family and friends accountable in opioid-related deaths. The penalty is steep and experts debate its effectiveness.
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Bystanders To Fatal Overdoses Increasingly Becoming Criminal Defendants

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Bystanders To Fatal Overdoses Increasingly Becoming Criminal Defendants

Bystanders To Fatal Overdoses Increasingly Becoming Criminal Defendants

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Law enforcement officials are trying a new response to massive numbers of deaths from opioids. What some police are now doing is treating overdose sites as crime scenes, sometimes charging friends and loved ones with murder. Here's Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Alexis Santa Barbara is a 39-year-old mother of three who lives in a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. Santa Barbara had been prescribed Percocet to treat back pain, but when the drug became unavailable, she turned to heroin. Across the street from her, her neighbor was also struggling with opioid addiction. One evening in late March, that neighbor gave Santa Barbara $10 and asked if she'd find him some heroin.

EMILY MANO: He just asked her to grab it. So she did.

ALLYN: Emily Mano is Santa Barbara's is 18-year-old daughter.

MANO: She doesn't always do stuff like that. It was just a favor. She'd never mean to harm someone. Never.

ALLYN: To prosecutors, it wasn't just a favor. It was a crime. Authorities say Santa Barbara obtained heroin laced with the powerful synthetic drug Fentanyl. Shortly after, court records show, Santa Barbara texted her neighbor, are you OK? He wasn't. George Yacoubian is Santa Barbara's lawyer.

GEORGE YACOUBIAN: His wife comes home and finds him collapsed on the floor of the bedroom.

ALLYN: Emergency responders pronounced the neighbor dead on the scene. Santa Barbara is now in jail awaiting trial on third-degree murder charges. Before she turned herself in, she for the first time revealed her addiction to her daughter.

MANO: She sat me down and she said that something bad happened, and she said that she would be getting into trouble.

ALLYN: More and more, trouble is following fellow drug users, friends and relatives of those dying from overdoses. With the country's opioid crisis widening, bystanders to fatal overdoses are increasingly becoming criminal defendants. In Pennsylvania, the number of people charged with murder from an accidental overdose went from 15 in 2013 to 205 last year. In roughly the same period, such cases tripled nationwide. That's according to the Oakland-based nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. The group released a study finding that laws passed during the crack epidemic in the 1980s to combat dealers are being used again. But the Alliance's Lindsay LaSalle says now prosecutors are stretching the definition of dealer to include almost anyone tied to drug use.

LINDSAY LASALLE: You are often charging someone who themselves was using or sharing with the person that died. And, you know, with a different twist of fate, it could have been that person that died and the other person being charged.

ALLYN: There's no evidence, LaSalle says, that the fear of prison stops an addict from using. And she says if a supplier is arrested, another one quickly pops up.

LASALLE: Part of this is about prosecutors wanting to feel responsive to the gravity of the moment.

ALLYN: In the Cincinnati area, which is seeing a surge in opioid deaths, police commander Tom Fallon leads a team of a dozen investigators on call 24/7. He says drug death prosecutions show families of victims that...

TOM FALLON: Their life mattered. And the message we want to get out to drug dealers is, if you sell drugs that kill somebody, you're going to go away, and you're going to go away for a long time.

ALLYN: Prosecutors in Santa Barbara's case wouldn't talk for this story, but she is facing 20 to 40 years in prison, even though she wasn't present when her neighbor died. Again, her daughter, Emily.

MANO: She had a clean record, and now it's like she's the worst thing that ever happened.

ALLYN: To win in court, prosecutors don't have to show that Santa Barbara intended to kill her neighbor, only that the drugs she gave him were lethal. Bobby Allyn, NPR News.

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