A Pennsylvania Man Survived An Overdose Only To Be Charged With Homicide
York County resident Aaron Hinds overdosed on heroin with a friend. The friend died, and Hinds now faces a 'drug delivery resulting in death' charge and a 40-year prison sentence.
After a long period of sobriety, 25-year-old Aaron Hinds relapsed in December and began using heroin again. Later in the month, Hinds left his suburban West Manchester Township home in York County, Pennsylvania, and made the approximately two-hour drive to Philadelphia to buy heroin for himself and a friend. Hinds and his friend used the drugs—and both overdosed. Hinds survived. However, on Christmas Day, his friend died.
In February, Hinds was charged by Detective William Haller of the Northern York County Regional Police with felony drug delivery resulting in death, Pennsylvania’s homicide charge that allows for the prosecution of those who sell or distribute drugs that result in fatal overdose. Hinds was remanded to York County Prison, a judge denied bail and, as of early July, he remained incarcerated there awaiting trial.
With more than 60,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide in 2016 alone, drug-induced homicide charges are increasingly commonplace. And York County has the highest number of drug delivery resulting in death cases in Pennsylvania, a state that leads the nation in turning accidental overdoses into criminal prosecutions, according to Health In Justice.
York County prosecutors boasted about securing a 54-year maximum sentence for a defendant charged with drug delivery resulting in death, the first time such a lengthy sentence had been handed down in the state in such a case. Prosecutors also sought a more than a 40-year prison term for a man who was barely 18 when he sold a lethal dose of heroin. The teen was ultimately sentenced to nine and a half to 19 years in prison.
If convicted, Hinds faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in state prison for his friend’s death.
“This is an outcome of a lot of pressure being put on police and prosecutors to ‘do something’ about the [overdose] crisis,” said Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. “At the same time, it’s indicative of the unchecked power of these institutions in pursuing interventions they think are going to be useful.” Beletsky added that there is no evidence that charging people like Hinds with a criminal homicide as a result of an overdose provides any public safety benefit, and it may actually result in more overdoses.
Hinds had been sober for roughly a year before he began using heroin again in December, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Northern York County Regional Police. Hinds told police that he and his friend used heroin together several times that month and bought it from their local dealer. The two then sought stronger drugs, so Hinds offered to travel farther for the buy. Hinds purchased 15 bags of what he thought was heroin from a dealer on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia and began the trip back to York County.
On the ride home, Hinds used a bag and half of heroin. He later told police the drugs were stronger than he was accustomed to. Hinds’s body became limp while he was driving and he crashed his vehicle, forcing his parents to pick him up and bring him home. Hinds sold the rest of the drugs to his friend for $120. In perhaps an attempt to reduce the risk that his friend would overdose, Hinds disposed of the heroin in most of the bags and replaced them with sugar, according to police. Only three or four bags he gave his friend contained heroin. Hinds told police he nonetheless warned his friend that the drugs were the strongest he had ever used and advised him not to use more than a quarter of a bag at a time.
But on Dec. 25, 2017, his friend was found on the floor of his bedroom of his York County home. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital roughly an hour later. A toxicology report determined that the man died of a fentanyl overdose.
Court records give no indication that Hinds or his friend knew the drugs contained fentanyl.
Heroin adulterated with fentanyl is leading to an increasing number of overdose deaths. Dan Ciccarone, professor of family and community medicine at University of California, San Francisco, describes the current wave of deaths as a “poisoning epidemic.”
As fatalities from fentanyl mount, Pennsylvania has experienced a rapid rise in drug delivery resulting in death charges filed by prosecutors. Between 2013 and 2016, a little more than 200 cases were filed statewide, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC). A similar number of cases were filed in 2017 alone.
The explosion in such cases leads to the targeting of users like Hinds, rather than high-level dealers who are often invoked when drug laws are drafted by legislators, Beletsky said. “The evidentiary mechanics of these cases makes it difficult to charge people who are one or two steps removed from the transaction,” he said. “That’s why prosecutors go for the low-hanging fruit, which is people who are intimately tied to the victims.”
From 2013 to 2017, more than 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s drug delivery resulting in death prosecutions originated in York County—but less than 4 percent of the state’s population lives there.
As overdoses have grown across the state, it is small, rural counties like York that are taking the most carceral approach to the public health crisis. In 2017, more than 70 percent of all drug delivery resulting in death cases were filed in just 10 counties that comprise less than 30 percent of the state’s population. The much more populous Philadelphia and Allegheny counties have only had 14 such cases each since 2013, according to the AOPC. This means that the two counties home to a quarter of the state’s population are responsible for just 3 percent all drug delivery resulting in death cases. It’s a divide between and rural and urban counties that appears likely to grow into a chasm as more users like Hinds face prosecution.