Under pressure to respond to the nation’s fatal overdose crisis, prosecutors are increasingly treating accidental overdose deaths as homicides.
We compiled news reports of “drug-induced homicide” (DIH) prosecutions nationwide, using big data analytics tools. In contrast to the stated intent to target major drug traffickers, our preliminary analysis found that a majority of prosecutions are being brought against individuals who do not fit the characterization of a “dealer” at all, such as friends, family, and co-users of the overdose decedent.
In cases that do involve organized drug distribution, the defendants are typically low-level dealers, with a disproportionate number of charges being brought in cases where the victim is white and the dealer is a person of color. Racial bias is also evident in the gaping disparity of the sentences being handed down to DIH defendants of color: a median of nearly nine years, contrasted to five years for whites.
There is no systematic empirical evidence that DIH prosecutions slow the sale of illegal drugs. On the contrary, they may well be counterproductive. Running at cross-purposes to 9-1-1 Good Samaritan laws, DIH prosecutions discourage witnesses to overdoses from calling 9-1-1 for fear that they will be arrested and charged with DIH or other serious crimes. For those who are incarcerated and suffer from opioid addiction, there is an exponentially increased likelihood of death from overdose during the first weeks after release.
What We Are Doing
Gathering data on drug induced homicide prosecutions by systematically collecting media stories since 2000;
Tracking past and present DIH cases through legal databases;
Aggregating state DIH statutes to map the legal landscape;
Identifying new and proposed DIH legislation nationwide.
Educating lawmakers about empirical and doctrinal implications of the DIH approach;
Articulating policy alternatives to DIH to policymakers and advocates.
Developing a toolkit for defense attorneys;
Disseminating the toolkit directly to defense teams working on DIH cases;
Raising awareness about trends and implications of DIH prosecutions.
HIJ Action Lab deploys a web-scraping algorithm analyzing media infosphere for mentions of drug-induced homicide and similar prosecutions. These results are updated weekly after being validated by analysts.
HIJ Action Lab has hand-coded a random subsample of online media articles for detailed information about relationships between individuals accused of drug-induced homicide and those who are deceased. We are in the process of calibrating our web-scraping algorithm to automate this process.