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States pursues convictions in overdose deaths

In New Jersey and across the nation, homicide charges were rarely pursued against people who sold drugs that led to a person's death. However, prosecutors in Ohio are taking proactive measures as the number of deaths from heroin has increased fourfold since 2008. Although they are seeking convictions for manslaughter or more serious charges, this step could mean additional legal complications.

In charging a drug dealer, the prosecutors generally talk to friends and family and obtain text messages or phone records in order to find out who sold the deceased person the drugs. If the prosecution wins a conviction on manslaughter and drug distribution or sales charges, the defendant could face harsh penalties.

In order to make their jobs easier, prosecutors are seeking to pass laws that make it a crime to sell someone a drug that leads to an overdose. These laws, called 'drug delivery resulting in death," differ among jurisdictions, as do the sanctions. For example, in Pennsylvania, a conviction could mean 40 years in custody while in Michigan, a person who is convicted could be sentenced to life in prison. In Ohio, a state representative has introduced a bill that also seeks life in prison for charges of aggravated murder.

However, a Harvard law professor says that murder charges for these crimes do not meet the standard criteria, including intent. In addition, the deceased's choice in taking the drug further complicates the question of charging an alleged drug dealer.

In a criminal case, the prosecution could look for reasons to seek a criminal conviction against a defendant, even if they were not directly involved in the alleged crime. A seasoned criminal defense attorney might minimize a defendant's actions in the case, thus reducing or even nullifying the connection between the person and the supposed victim.

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