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Fatal OD bystanders increasingly becoming criminal defendants

In New York and other states, the opioid crisis is being cited as a contributing factor in a growing number of drug-related crimes, including some that result in overdose deaths. However, a recent situation involving a woman who purchased heroin for a neighbor illustrates another trend with drug crimes -- bystanders becoming criminal defendants. In this instance, the neighbor died of a fatal overdose from the heroin the woman purchased at his request. It turned out to be laced with another powerful opioid drug, fentanyl.

While the woman wasn't present when her neighbor took the fatal overdose, prosecutors are charging her with a felony related to a drug delivery that resulted in death. The nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance notes that 20 states have drug-induced homicide laws in which indirectly involved parties can be held responsible for drug deaths.

The Alliance claims that prosecutors are applying laws that were originally created in response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s to today's opioid crisis. Attempts are being made by some prosecutors to apply such laws to just about anyone related to drug use that results in a lethal overdose. There have been instances of people being criminally charged simply for using the overdose-reversing drug Narcan or calling for assistance. While states like New York have Good Samaritan laws that protect people who help others in need of urgent assistance, such laws do not typically apply to drug-related homicides.

Critics of increased efforts to prosecute anyone who may be considered a drug supplier suggest it would be more productive to address the ongoing demand for powerful or illegal narcotics instead. When someone is facing possible legal penalties for such a crime, a criminal attorney may be able to question evidence or create reasonable doubts in regard to the client's involvement.

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