Lawmakers look to hold drug dealers accountable

Should opioid and heroin dealers whose products cause fatal overdoses be charged with homicide? It’s a question state lawmakers have taken up the last several years and spurred by the death of an 18-year-old Albany County girl from a heroin overdose.

Late last week, the state Senate passed a bill that would allow prosecutors and police to charge drug dealers and traffickers with homicide, an A1 felony, if the drugs resulted in a fatal overdose. In previous years the legislation, — named “Laree’s Law” after Laree Lincoln, who died in 2013 – made it through the Senate but failed to get out of committee in the Democratic-led Assembly.

Speaking on the bill, state Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, said those who sell drugs that result in the death of a user are typically charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance. Young, a co-sponsor of the bill, said she hopes the legislation will deter drug dealers and traffickers from spreading dangerous narcotics into their communities.

Oftentimes, the senator said, the drugs are combined with fentanyl, a power opioid designed to treat severe pain. Young said heroin and opioid use has become a “public health crisis of unprecedented proportions.”

“One of the contributing factors fueling both addiction and overdose deaths are the drug dealers who are lacing heroin with fentanyl to produce a more powerful high, creating a deadly concoction that can kill quickly,” Young said in a statement. “They are deliberately selling death for profit and they need to be charged accordingly.”

If passed in the Assembly and signed by the governor, drug dealers who knowingly sell potentially fatal drugs could be charged with homicide. Those convicted could face a prison sentence of 15 to 25 years.

State Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, said he hopes the bill is reviewed by the Codes Committee and eventually moved to the Assembly for discussion and possibly a vote. He said the debate on the bill will likely focus on intent, which he said could be hard to prove with drug dealers.

“Most drug dealers don’t kill their customers,” Goodell told the OBSERVER. “They want them to keep coming back. This would be a little bit of a departure where we require intent before we charge them with an A1 felony.”

However, Goodell acknowledged that drugs are being mixed with other opioids, creating a potentially dangerous combination. He said some dealers likely are aware of the hazards when selling the drugs.

“When they’re mixed they can become extremely deadly,’ Goodell said. “How’s that any different than shooting someone or poisoning them?”

Prosecuting drug dealers for selling products that result in fatal overdoses has proven rare in New York. When the bill was passed in the Senate in late 2016, then-acting Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson pointed out that linking the fatal drugs back a specific dealer can be difficult.

“To make that link, you got to be able to prove that the substance ingested was purchased from X drug dealer … and that’s difficult,” Swanson said at the time. “Because absent an admission from whatever drug dealer sold it, you need to have forensic toxicologists say that this is the substance that was the cause of death. It’s tough to make those links.”

Young is hoping the conviction of an Olean woman in April last year on criminally negligent homicide will bolster the bill’s merit. Chelsea Lyons, who was 27 years old at the time, pleaded guilty to the homicide charge in Cattaraugus County Court after police said she caused the death of 42-year-old Matthew Harper on Feb. 24, 2016, by selling him heroin laced with fentanyl.

The Olean woman also pleaded guilty to criminal sale and criminal possession of a controlled sentence.

Lyons — who was sentenced to one to three years in prison as part of plea agreement, according to the Olean Times Herald — was the first person in the county to be sentenced on a homicide charge for selling drugs. Matthew Albert, her Buffalo-based attorney, said Lyons was facing additional years in prison due to the felony charges for allegedly selling and possessing drugs.

Albert called the plea agreement with the District Attorney’s Office “mutually beneficial.”

“We lost the battle to (win the war),” Albert told the OBSERVER. “They got their headline while we got to save some years. It worked well for both sides. … There are certain drug charges that carry higher sentences than criminally negligent homicide.”

Not speaking specifically on Lyons’ case, Albert said the proposed law could serve a good purpose, but believes overzealous prosecutors might use it to target common drug peddlers who are selling to their own friends.

“I think you could get to a place where prosecutors will try to fit a narrative to fit their own conclusions,” he said. “It think it would be difficult to link the drugs and could lend itself to abuse in the system.”

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