Bryan P. Sears//August 9, 2017
//August 9, 2017
Gov. Larry Hogan called on state’s attorneys from around Maryland to ramp up their prosecution of heroin dealers as part of a growing effort to address the heroin and opiate crisis.
Hogan, appearing in St. Mary’s County for the announcement of charges against eight individuals charged with the deaths of individuals to whom they allegedly sold drugs, threw his support behind a relatively new and as yet untested avenue of prosecution.
“Everyone is entitled to due process,” Hogan said. “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But I believe this is the level of tough prosecution that we need in order to turn the tide in this deadly fight.”
Maryland, as with other states, is struggling to get a handle on the exploding heroin and opioid epidemic and an increasing number of deaths.
Last year, more than 2,000 people died of drug overdoses in Maryland — more than gun-related and vehicle-related deaths combined. This year, the state reported 550 overdose deaths in the first three months, with what Hogan called “a huge spike” in deaths related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
The governor said the 372 fentanyl-related overdose deaths marked the first time the drug had surpassed heroin for causing the greatest number of drug overdose deaths in the state.
Hogan said treatment and prevention are not enough. He praised St. Mary’s County law enforcement and prosecutors for their approach in prosecuting alleged drug dealers.
St. Mary’s County State’s Attorney Richard Fritz Wednesday announced the indictment of eight people for the drug overdose deaths of individuals in his county. All are charged with second-degree depraved heart murder, manslaughter, reckless endangerment as well as drug distribution charges. All of the cases involve drug overdoses involving heroin or the synthetic opioids fentanyl or carfentanil or a combination of the three drugs.
“This has got to stop and the only way it will stop is not by bringing these simple charges of distribution but charging them so hard as a consequence of the death of the person that they delivered these drugs to that they’re going to realize that the one thing they do not want to do is distribute drugs in St. Mary’s County,” Fritz said. “Because if that person dies, they will be prosecuted for homicide, and we will ask for the maximum sentence in addition to the distribution charges they will be faced with.”
This is not the first time Fritz has brought second-degree depraved heart murder charges against an alleged drug dealer as the result of an overdose death. He filed similar charges against another defendant last fall.
Fritz said his jurisdiction brought the charges after a joint investigation with the Maryland State Police was able to tie the purchase of drugs used by the victims to specific individual defendants.
The approach is fairly new and has not yet been tested in a state appeals court.
“We know a lot of (state’s attorneys) are looking at it,” said Calvert County State’s Attorney Laura L. Martin.
Martin said cases such as the one Fritz has filed can be difficult because prosecutors have to prove the defendant caused the victim’s death — an issue on which many prosecutors are divided.
“We have no case law,” Martin said.
Currently, St. Mary’s County sends similar cases to federal prosecutors, but Martin said other prosecutors are interested in being able to prosecute cases at the state level.
Martin, the president of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ association, recently conducted a survey of prosecutors in other jurisdictions to determine how they are handling similar cases.
Four counties have charged alleged drug dealers with manslaughter in a number of overdose-related cases, she said. Most are awaiting trail and the few that have been adjudicated have resulted in pleas where the defendant was sentenced for distribution.
Fritz’s approach appears to be unique among his colleagues.
Martin said she and others are watching and waiting for a conviction and the likely resulting appeal that will determine if other prosecutors can use the same approach.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said his county is eager to similarly prosecute cases.
“We’ve been looking for one of these that we could go after, but we haven’t found the right case yet,” Shellenberger said.