SJC Weighs Which Charges One Should Face For Providing Drugs That Cause An Overdose

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What criminal charges should someone face for providing the drugs that cause a fatal overdose?

That was essentially the question before the Supreme Judicial Court Monday.

Jesse Carrillo's lawyer doesn't argue that Carrillo traveled from Massachusetts to New York in 2013 to buy heroin from a dealer he knew. He doesn't argue that Carrillo was getting the heroin for himself and to share with fellow University of Massachusetts Amherst student Eric Sinacori. What attorney J.W. Carney does take issue with is Carrillo's 2017 conviction on charges of drug distribution and involuntary manslaughter for Sinacori's overdose death.

Carney argues that the jury that heard Carrillo's case should have been allowed to consider whether to convict Carrillo of the lesser crime of drug possession, not distribution.

"Jesse Carrillo was not a drug dealer," Carney said in oral arguments. "He didn't profit from getting Eric the heroin, he didn't benefit in any way. He just pooled the money, went to the dealer, purchased it, and gave Eric exactly what he had paid for."

In Massachusetts, there is no law that outlines a mandatory sentence for providing the drugs in a fatal overdose. Gov. Charlie Baker has filed a bill calling for tougher penalties in such circumstances. In an amicus brief filed in Carrillo's case, state Attorney General Maura Healey says because substantial harm can be expected from heroin use, the person providing the drugs should be held liable.

But Carney says Massachusetts case law suggests that alone is not enough.

"I realize that I raised the hackles of the attorney general, who filed an amicus brief saying heroin is wicked bad. It's wicked bad. We know that," he said. "What we have to determine is, is a person acting as a possessor of heroin when he buys heroin in a joint venture with another person?"

Testifying for the prosecution was Northwestern Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Von Flatern. The justices asked whether involuntary manslaughter charges should always be the penalty for a person who supplies the drug that causes an overdose. Von Flatern said an appeals court could consider all the circumstances.

Justice Scott Kafker pressed further, on whether Carrillo specifically knew he was doing something reckless.

"He's bought this heroin multiple times, used it himself, he's not died on any of these occasions," the justice said. "Isn't that about as safe a drug delivery as we're going to hear about when you're dealing with heroin?"

Von Flatern disagreed, saying that Carrillo "was delivering to an individual who showed severe addiction."

Chief Justice Ralph Gants then asked Von Flatern about how her reasoning might affect when courts involuntarily commit people to addiction treatment, under the law known as Section 35.

"I'm just wondering about whether the DAs and the attorney general [are] prepared to accept the logical consequence of your position," he said, "which, as far as I can tell, is that every person with a substance use disorder may be civilly committed."

"No, I don't think that," Von Flatern replied. But when delivery of heroin results in death, she said, then it is reckless.

Gants said an SJC decision on whether Carrillo's actions meet the legal definition of "wanton and reckless" conduct could have broad ramifications.

"Wanton and reckless means there is a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result," Gants said. "That's basically the same standard for civil commitment."

Further complicating the case is that Sinacori reportedly worked as an informant for UMass police in exchange for allowing him to stay in school and not telling his parents that he was caught selling LSD.

Sinacori's family declined to comment on Monday's arguments.

Carrillo now works at an addiction recovery center in New Hampshire.

The SJC is expected to issue a ruling within 130 days.

This segment aired on February 5, 2019.


Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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