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CSA reverses manslaughter conviction for heroin sale

The Court of Special Appeals has reversed the manslaughter conviction of a Worcester County drug dealer last week after determining prosecutors failed to establish a causal link between the drugs sold to the victim and his death.

The intermediate appellate court stressed it was not “prejudging future cases nor making any broad pronouncements” about prosecutors charging dealers with murder when buyers die in its ruling on Patrick Joseph Thomas’ case. Thomas had been sentenced to 20 years for distribution and 10 years concurrently for manslaughter; the distribution count was unaffected by the ruling.

“We do not wish for this Opinion to be misunderstood,” Judge Daniel A. Friedman wrote for the three-judge panel. “Thomas committed a serious crime and for it received a long sentence of incarceration. That was not challenged and we do not doubt its correctness. Nor do we say necessarily that drug dealers categorically cannot be liable for involuntary manslaughter when their customers die. We say only that the facts of this case do not legally support the conviction.”

Thomas, who told police he would sell about half of the heroin he obtained and keep the rest for personal use, received multiple calls and texts June 25 from Colton Lee Maltrey, who he had sold heroin to in the past, and ultimately sold drugs to Maltrey, according to the opinion.

Maltrey was found dead the following morning of an apparent overdose in the bathroom of his mother’s house, where police discovered four bags matching those Thomas typically sold. Investigators also found prescription opioids potentially stolen from Maltrey’s mother and evidence of alcohol consumption; Maltrey’s cause of death was determined to be alcohol and narcotic intoxication, according to the opinion.

While Friedman acknowledged a manslaughter conviction in a similar case is possible, prosecutors in Thomas’ case failed to establish a causal connection between the heroin sale and Maltrey’s death. Maltrey used the drug in conjunction with alcohol, which may have intensified its effect and broke the causal chain, wrote Friedman, who was joined by Judges Andrea M. Leahy and Lawrence F. Rodowsky, a senior judge specially assigned.

The court’s ruling has been discussed among prosecutors throughout the state, some of whom have similar, pending involuntary manslaughter cases, according to Calvert County State’s Attorney Linda Martin, president of the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association.

“When you read the opinion, the opinion doesn’t say that it can’t be done, it just says in this case, the causal connection was not there,” she said.

But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said jurisdictions with cases in the pipeline are reassessing after the court’s ruling.

“I think everybody’s gone back and are re-looking at their cases to see how they fit into this new case and how it’s going to impact those,” he said. “I mean, people were testing the law because of some really horrendous situations and now we know what the parameters are.”

Shellenberger said he has been looking for a case in Baltimore County with good facts to bring such an involuntary manslaughter charge.

‘Variants’ of manslaughter

Thomas was convicted under both “variants” of involuntary manslaughter: unlawful act manslaughter and grossly negligent manslaughter. The court acknowledged the harms of the national opioid epidemic but ultimately did not reach the issue of whether selling drugs is a qualifying crime for unlawful act manslaughter, which courts have held must be “naturally evil as adjudged by the sense of a civilized community” and “wrong in itself.”

“On the one hand, one would have to live under a rock — and we do not — to miss the evils that the distribution of drugs causes for our State and Nation,” Friedman wrote. “On the other hand, the test isn’t whether the unlawful act — here drug distribution — has bad or even deadly effects. Rather the question is whether drug distribution is prohibited by all civilized societies. We know that it is not. We know, for example, that other drugs, with similar effects and similar risks to those caused by heroin, are routinely prescribed by doctors and sold by pharmacists.”

The court also found prosecutors also failed to prove manslaughter by a grossly negligent act because there was no evidence Thomas’ sale rose to that level of negligence. The state argued the amount sold was a lethal dose; Thomas knew Maltrey was a young, inexperienced addict; and Thomas knew heroin’s dangers and the sale in the middle of the night after frantic messages was “weird.”

But the court determined dealers are presumed to want to keep their customers alive to be able to sell them more heroin and user-dealers have “no rational interest in making the conduct more dangerous” because they also use the product.

“It is also worth noting that, if we were to consider every sale of heroin to be gross negligence, it reduces criminal liability down to a matter of mere fortuity,” Friedman wrote. “We do not apportion criminal liability for manslaughter merely because of bad luck.”

The case is Patrick Joseph Thomas v. State of Maryland, No. 1115, Sept. 2016.

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