Those who sell heroin could face a homicide charge in Ohio, as law enforcement tries to crack down on the growing epidemic of drug overdoses.
A northwest Ohio sheriff has vowed to start pursuing homicide charges against heroin dealers who sell the drugs used in an overdose death, and if he is successful, others may follow his lead.
Combating a heroin spike in his county that has resulted in a tenfold increase in overdose deaths in a three-year span, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp announced this month that he will dedicate three full-time and one part-time detective to investigate heroin overdoses, which will now be considered homicide cases.
In Washington County, where there have been at least four heroin-related overdoses this year so far, law enforcement already tries to pursue the more serious charges for traffickers but doing so is a challenge, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.
"It is a priority with us," he said. "On every overdose we do victimologies, we send out our detective bureau and we try to find out who might have sold that....We devote all the manpower we need to try to gather the evidence. The problem is ...it's unobtainable. The dealer who sold it isn't going to testify and the guy who bought it is deceased."
Mincks said he thinks the possibility of homicide or manslaughter charges being successfully prosecuted is "remote."
Statewide heroin-related deaths
- 2010: 344.
- 2011: 438.
- 2012: 706.
- 2013: 914.
Washington County heroin-related deaths
- 2010: 1.
- 2011: 0.
- 2012: 0.
- 2013: 3.
Source: Ohio Attorney General's Office.
"I would love to do that and we would do that if we could prove it," he said.
Tharp said he thinks manpower and follow-up will be a huge factor in the success of the plan to combat opiate use. Tharp plans to have detectives aggressively investigate both fatal and nonfatal overdoses, starting with contact with the addict and his or her family at the hospital and more follow-ups on down the road, he said.
"The addiction team does follow-ups with family. That officer can be the spark for that person getting assistance," said Tharp.
Building a rapport with families also means they are more likely to trust the officer, and provide leads on who is giving their loved ones the dangerous drugs, he said.
Feedback has been incredibly positive, he added.
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook, people think it's the right thing to do," said Tharp.
Such serious charges have never been brought in an overdose death in Washington County, said Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider.
"We go after dealers all the time, but not in a situation where there's been an overdose," he said.
That is not to say it would not be done.
"If the sheriff or police bring a case where they can show, for sure, that a person provided the drugs that killed somebody, then I would prosecute them for murder," Schneider said.
The Washington County Sheriff's Office does, as a policy, attempt to find the source of drugs used in a deadly overdose, said Washington County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Mark Warden.
"In many cases that is very hard...I don't know if we've ever had a successful one (prosecuted as homicide or manslaughter)," he said.
Local residents say they think harsher legal penalties are a good way to fight back against drug usage.
"As a parent, it's frightening to have kids in a society where there's such an abundance of drugs...I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who thinks there shouldn't be more legal options," said Marietta resident Marilee Morrow, 45.
While St. Mary's resident Matt Ball, 33, does not think stricter penalties will necessarily deter drug dealers, it would keep dealers off the street longer, he said.
"It's just another thing you can throw at them," he said.
Selling heroin is often classified as a fifth-degree felony in Ohio with a maximum one-year prison penalty, while involuntary manslaughter is a first-degree felony that may put the offender away for up to 11 years and reckless homicide is a third-degree felony with a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Tharp's announcement will make him the first to begin aggressively pursuing the deaths as homicide cases. But the tactic is not entirely new.
The federal "Len Bias Law," named for a basketball player who fatally overdosed on cocaine just days after being drafted, gives federal prosecutors the ability to impose a minimum 20-year prison sentence on a dealer who distributes life-ending drugs, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine explained.
"It doesn't have to show that the person intentionally wanted to kill that person," he noted.
But charges under the federal statute can only be brought by a federal attorney, he added.
At the state level, prosecutors have the option to charge dealers with reckless homicide and involuntary manslaughter under the Ohio Revised Code, said DeWine.
In June, a Bowling Green woman was indicted under the state law. Tricia A. Miller was charged with involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree felony, for allegedly selling the heroin that resulted in the March overdose death of Daniel Patton Jr.
The challenge, as more prosecutors look to such laws to combat rising heroin problems, will be proving that the drug sold was the proximate cause of death, said DeWine.
"In these Ohio statutes, you have to prove that the drug the first person sold, resulted in the death of the other person...the person might have had five or six drugs in their system," he said.
Like in Lucas County, the Washington County Sheriff's Office does have a good relationship with local Emergency Medical Services (EMS), which typically contacts law enforcement when responding to a suspected overdose, according to Seth Deem, president of the Washington County EMS Association.
So far this year, there have been four heroin-related overdose deaths in the county of which Warden is aware. But many more potential overdoses have been prevented thanks to Narcan, speculated Warden.
The drug, which when administered as an injection or inhalant reverses the effects of an opiate overdose, was relatively unheard of in the local EMS community a decade ago, said Deem.
"I couldn't give you a hard number," said Deem in reference to how often county emergency responders administer the drug. "But I would say a good guess would be once or twice a week."
Statewide, heroin overdose deaths nearly tripled between 2010 and 2013. Though not all county coroners contributed to the report and those who did might record cause of death differently, a report compiled by the Ohio Attorney General's Office showed those deaths jumping from 344 to 914 in that four-year span.
During those four years, Washington County reported one heroin-related death in 2010, none in 2011 and 2012, and three in 2013.