The United States is in the midst of a drug overdose epidemic. The CDC reports that drug overdose deaths have been consistently on the rise for the past twenty years, and now top the list of the most common injury-related deaths in the country. In an attempt to fight back, a New Jersey prosecutor is revisiting a near-forgotten state law that holds drug dealers strictly liable for the deaths of their customers.
Unearthing a Two-Decade-Old Law
According to CNN, New Jersey Prosecutor Joseph Coronato began searching for a new way to stunt the alarming growth of overdose deaths after eight people in his county died from drug overdoses over the span of just one week. The first prong of his multi-step solution was to revive the law that allowed him to go after the source of the problem–the drug dealers themselves. He has hinted at other ways to go after dealers, although he has not revealed them yet.
Coronato reports that using this law to prosecute dealers has been successful, with 12 cases presented and one guilty plea since April 2013. He attributes his successes partially to another law passed in 2013 that provides protections for those who report drug overdoses to emergency services. Friends of overdose victims are becoming more likely to call for help and provide information about the source of the drugs because they can not be prosecuted.
Strict Drug Dealer Liability and Overdose Laws Garnering National Attention
The application of strict drug dealer liability for first-degree felonies is rare outside of New Jersey, but it is drawing attention from across the country, especially after public calls for justice following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fatal overdose last month. According to news reports, law enforcement agents uncovered dozens of packages of heroin during a search of Hoffman’s apartment.
Some legal forums have speculated that law enforcement may attempt to blame the drug dealer for Hoffman’s death by charging him with selling the heroin that resulted in the actor’s death to appease a public outcry. However, according to prosecutors, the dealers will unlikely face more than criminal drug possession charges, because drug dealer liability laws are much more lax in New York, where the incident took place.
The Future of Drug Dealer Liability
While there are over a dozen states that have some form of drug dealer liability in place, the severity of New Jersey’s law is almost unheard of elsewhere. Time will tell whether Coronato’s crusade will have any noticeable impact on the number of overdoses in the state. If he can prove that enforcement of these severe drug dealer liability laws decrease overdose deaths and the public continues to call for stricter liability for drug dealers, we may see this once-defunct law spread to other states.