Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Despite “Public Health” Messaging, Law Enforcement Increasingly Prosecutes Overdoses as Homicides

Drug Policy Alliance

Despite “Public Health” Messaging, Law Enforcement Increasingly Prosecutes Overdoses as Homicides

In response to a surging overdose crisis, prosecutors are doubling down on draconian drug induced homicide statutes.

On November 28, 2014, 28-year-old Edward Martin was found dead inside a Quiznos bathroom in Littleton, New Hampshire. Next to his body was a syringe and spoon with which he used to inject a potent batch of heroin that turned out to be laced with illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. While such scenes are now tragically common, the prosecutorial aftermath compounds the human toll of the opioid crisis.

Before Michael Millette, 55, sold Martin the bag of heorin, he warned him to be careful because it was a strong batch. “I told him, ‘Listen, this stuff is really good, just do a tiny line, it’s very strong,’” Michael recalled in a profile written by the Drug Policy Alliance published on November 7th. The two men were friends, often confiding in each other about their shared experience of being addicted to opioids — how they felt sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

Their friendship was irrelevant to Littleton Police Department and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Drug Task Force, which by December 2014 had pinned Martin’s death back on Millette using a draconian law developed during the crack-cocaine era, “Sale of a Controlled Drug Resulting in Death,” otherwise known as drug-induced homicide. On October 26, 2015, after spending nearly a year in jail, Millette — a drug user who was selling merely to support his own addiction — pled guilty to selling fentanyl that resulted in Martin’s death. He was sentenced in Grafton County Superior Court to spend the next 10 to 30 years in New Hampshire State Prison.

In the midst of America’s deadliest drug crisis, cases like Millette’s are spiking across the country. Drug induced homicide prosecutions increased by more than 300 percent in just six years, from 363 in 2011 to 1,178 in 2016, according to an analysis of media mentions outlined in a new report by The Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based non-profit. Hailed by prosecutors as a strong message to dealers, drug induced homicide cases instead create a chilling effect among drug users, deterring them from calling 911 during an overdose, effectively undermining the so-called “public health” response to America’s worsening overdose crisis.

“Drug induced homicide is couched as a way to respond to the overdose crisis, but prosecutors are not held accountable for proving whether these laws are effective,” said Lindsay LaSalle, Senior Staff Attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance and the report’s author. “There is not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities.”

In fact, research shows these laws are not only ineffective, but that they exacerbate the very problems they purport to solve. Of those who have witnessed an overdose, more than half reported they are reluctant to dial 911, citing fear of legal consequences, according to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. Drug-induced homicide prosecutions undercut the utility of 911 Good Samaritan Laws, which provide a safe haven for people seeking medical assistance during an overdose, LaSalle said.

Rather than prosecuting upper-echelon drug distributors, prosecutors often charge friends and romantic partners of the overdose victim, according to an analysis by Health In Justice, a policy institute out of Boston’s Northeastern School of Law tracking punitive drug policies such as drug-induced homicide and involuntary commitment for drug users. “Fewer than half of cases we analyzed involved a traditional buyer/seller relationship,” said Leo Beletsky, lead investigator at Health In Justice, and an Associate Professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University.

Health In Justice Institute

Both analyses by Health In Justice and the Drug Policy Alliance also found a familiar, racialized policing pattern. Even though drug users tend to purchase drugs from members of their own race, class and peer group, more than half of all drug-induced homicide cases mentioned in the news involved a person of color as a dealer and a white overdose victim, according to Health In Justice. Drug Policy Alliance’s LaSalle noted that in a 94 percent white suburban county near Chicago, 35 percent of drug induced homicide cases were brought against people of color.

In the case of Martin and Millette, one life was lost to an overdose and the other was lost to a miscarriage of justice. Every dollar spent prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases is money that could be better spent providing treatment and preventing overdoses from occurring in the first place.

Cops Who Slap Homeless Women, Rape Prisoners, Assault Children, and Keep their Jobs … and Other Unseen News from The World’s Most Carceral State

Cops Who Slap Homeless Women, Rape Prisoners, Assault Children, and Keep their Jobs … and Other Unseen News from The World’s Most Carceral State

We live a deeply problematic era in American history. As I type this, the nation is reeling from yet another mass shooting in which 26 people were shot and killed in a rural Texas church. Federal prosecutors are currently investigating and indicting members of Donald Trump’s campaign team for various levels of corruption. And while all of this, and so much more, goes on, police brutality, prosecutorial misconduct, and other problems within America’s criminal justice system continue with less and less scrutiny.

Here, we cover many incidents of injustice from the past week that you likely have not heard about, but deserve our time and attention.

A Washington D.C. Police Lieutenant Arrested for Child Abuse

Lieutenant David Hutchinson, 55, a longtime veteran of the Washington D.C. Police Department, was arrested and charged with cruelty to a child. According to the Washington Post,

“Police said Hutchinson’s abuse on Oct. 30 left the child’s face, ears, eyes, neck and mouth bruised and swollen. Hutchinson told police he didn’t assault the child and didn’t know how the child was injured, according to the charging document. The child initially reported being injured from falling down the stairs but later said it was from Hutchinson, according to the charging documents.”

This should come as no surprise. Police officers have a rate of domestic violence 400% higher than the average American.

This Georgia officer was also just charged with cruelty to children.

A Bakersfield, California Police Officer Caught with Stolen Guns and Steroids

Officer Kevin Schindler, of the troubled Bakersfield Police Department, was caught with injectable steroids and guns he had stolen from the police department. How were these things discovered? Police were called to his house for a domestic disturbance. That makes sense — because, as we established above, police officers have a disturbing rate of domestic violence. Not only that, but steroid abuse is regularly linked to police officers and domestic violence. I bet he keeps his job.

Cop Suddenly Retires after News Investigation Reveals His History of Sexual Harassment

Lieutenant Jimmy Cunningham had been an officer in Middletown, Ohio for 28 years. As it turns out, throughout his tenure, seven different fellow officers, both men and women, regularly took the brave step of reporting him for sexual harassment, but the city and his supervisors went out of their way to sweep it under the rug. This is clearly a trend that cuts across all industries.

According to the local investigation, “The Middletown officers claimed they were regularly the target of Cunningham’s crude sexual comments. Male officers were praised for their size of their penises. Female officers were invited to wear a bikini to an upcoming training class or send Cunningham a picture of their breasts.”

While investigating these claims, it was also revealed that Cunningham had previously been cited for slapping a homeless woman across the face.

Minnesota Police Officer Under Investigation Abruptly Resigns Due to “Work Related Injury”

Mike Shephard, a veteran police officer in Mendota Heights, Minnesota has been disciplined for misconduct at least five times since 2010. This last time, though, was particularly troubling. Shephard was illegally using police department databases to get personal information on at least a dozen different people including his girlfriend, a local female firefighter, local city council members, and other members of local law enforcement and their families. He was suspended this past March for 30 days after it was discovered that he was using the databases. Then, this past August, he was placed on leave again for yet another internal investigation.

All of this gets to one essential challenge in American policing — bad apples are rarely fired — even when investigations determine, over and over again, that they have poor character or have broken the law.

Then, when a bad police officer is finally fired, like Charles Foley in Tucson, who committed a felony when he forged his ex-wife’s signature on a large check that did not belong to him, he finds a way to win an appeal to miraculously get his job back. People are in jail for this right now.

New Jersey Police Officer Indicted on Multiple Sexual Assault Charges

Wilfredo Guzman, a 40 year old veteran police officer in Rockaway Township in New Jersey was just indicted on over a dozen felony charges of sexual assault against several different teenage girls as young as 15 years old. According to the report,

“The first indictment charges Guzman with two counts of Sexual Assault, four counts of Endangering the Welfare of a Child, and eight counts of Official Misconduct. The second indictment charges Guzman with two counts of Official Misconduct and Possession of Child Pornography.

The Sexual Assault and Endangering the Welfare of a Child charges relate to alleged conduct between Guzman and two minor females, one of whom was between the ages of 16–17, and another who was 15 years-old during the time in question.

It is alleged that Mr. Guzman engaged in acts of sexual penetration with the two females on various dates in 2014 and 2015, and that Mr. Guzman provided both females alcohol and prescription medication during the same time frame.”

This incident is not unique. A Wisconsin officer was just arrested for sending sexually explicit text messages to a 15 year old girl.

Two NYPD cops are facing charges for raping a teenage girl they had in police custody.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy has now been charged with sexually assaulting at least three different women in custody.

More in Explainers

What’s in the Water in Pennsylvania?

A pattern of scandals, misconduct, and federal reversals seem to plague the state’s district attorneys.

Larry Krasner, candidate for Philadelphia County District Attorney, faces an uphill battle.

What’s in the Water in Pennsylvania?

A pattern of scandals, misconduct, and federal reversals seem to plague the state’s district attorneys.

Following a 7-month grand jury investigation, Mercer County, Penn. DA Miles Karson is preparing to fight more than a dozen criminal misdemeanor chargesrelated to allegedly using his power to gain preferential treatment for his girlfriend. The indictment’s 17 charges range from obstructing the administration of the law to hindering prosecution, and stem from allegations that 72-year-old Karson contacted a district judge, police chief, probation officer, crime victim, and others in an effort to gain a more lenient sentence for 39-year-old Tonya Bulboff, who was sentenced on reduced drug charges in early October, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In late October, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro called on Karson “to do the honorable thing and resign.” Instead, Karson maintained his innocence, telling the public that he has no intention of resigning.

“I can assure you that I have committed no offenses and I am anxious to fight the allegations made in the charges in court,” said Karson in a statement, adding that he intends to stay in office.

The DA is currently rounding out his third year of a four-year term. In spite of the growing chorus of public officials calling him for to step down, Karson seems intent on keeping his job until he’s forced to do otherwise. Though he might seem stubborn, his determination in the face of ample evidence of his guilt isn’t surprising in the broader context of elected officials in Pennsylvania’s justice system.

Take Stacy Parks Miller of Centre County, who lost the Democratic nomination in May in her bid for another term as district attorney. Over the course of her tenure in the office, she raised eyebrows for ethically questionable choices such as creating a fake Facebook account to spy on defendants and texting judges during trials to nudge them toward decisions in her favor, as reported by In Justice Today’s Jessica Pishko. Parks Miller also demanded that a paralegal fake a judge’s signature on a bail order. She’s now facing a complaint from the state bar for her misconduct.

Then there’s Cumberland Couny, Penn., the office where District Attorney David Freed hired Evan McLaren as a clerk in 2016. McLaren is now the executive director of the white supremacist-founded National Policy Institute. McLaren was one of the many white nationalists who marched through Charlottesville carrying a torch in protest of the removal of a Confederate statue in August. Freed has since promised to improve his office’s vetting process for prospective employees.

Most recently, former Philadelphia DA Seth Williams made headlines for being sentenced by a federal judge to five years in prison in a bribery and corruption case. Williams failed to report $175,000 in gifts from donors — an offense he ultimately pled guilty to. U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond berated Williams on his Oct. 24 sentencing: “Almost from the time you took office, you sold yourself to the parasites you surrounded yourself with. You humiliated the men and women of the District Attorney’s Office.”

Philadelphians will have the chance on election day to choose the next face of the county’s DA office. Candidate Larry Krasner — who many predict will win — stands far left of many of his predecessors, in spite of their professed commitments to criminal justice reform. With no previous experience as a prosecutor and, instead, a lengthy history of suing the Philadelphia Police Department, his popularity thus far seems to speak to the interests of an electorate that has had enough of the status quo, and is fed up with DAs whose commitment to progressive values reveal themselves to be skin-deep.

More in Podcasts