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Prosecutors seek prison for dealers, treatment for victims in opioid crisis

Scott Shellenerger

While prosecutors charge opioid dealers with the most serious crimes possible when linked to a fatal overdose, they also seek to give users help when addiction is causing criminal behavior. ‘I don’t ever remember being in a courtroom where that wasn’t the first question a judge asked a convicted defendant and when the judge didn’t try to get the person help,’ says Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger.

As the opioid crisis rages in Maryland, prosecutors are continuing to develop and hone strategies to get help for those in need while also punishing distributors contributing to the problem.

“There’s a recognition that while we’re in this crisis, there’s a necessity to go after the violent groups that are dealing these drugs,” said Carroll County State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo. “Just as aggressively as we want to deal with people that are addicted, we want to deal with those groups.”

Prosecuting distributors is a priority in Allegany County, where State’s Attorney Michael Twigg said dealers from Baltimore and beyond can triple their profits.

“We specifically target those (who), in my mind, they are only coming to this jurisdiction, to this community, to victimize it,” he said.

In many counties, part of prosecutors’ strategy includes charging the most serious crimes possible when a dealer is linked to a fatal overdose, but a case currently on appeal has many reevaluating what a strong manslaughter or murder case should look like.

The Court of Special Appeals in April reversed an opioid-related manslaughter conviction, finding Worcester County prosecutors had not established a sufficient causal link between the drugs sold to the victim and his death. The appellate panel stressed it is not ruling out the possibility of charging a dealer with murder, but prosecutors said they understand the challenge they face.

The state attorney general’s office petitioned the Court of Appeals for certiorari in the case last week.

Twigg said Allegany is interested in charging dealers linked to a death with manslaughter.

“It’s something that we’re looking for the right case to do it with,” he said. “If this has taught us anything, it’s how we’re approaching this from several angles.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said fentanyl distribution may rise to the level of manslaughter if the defendant knew what he or she was selling. But, like his colleagues across the state, he is keeping an eye on the pending appellate litigation.

“In my mind, you would literally have to have some knowledge on the part of the seller to know that there is fentanyl in it and know that it’s dangerous,” he said.

Carroll County is still looking for a case with good facts to pursue a homicide charge, DeLeonardo said, and will wait until the Court of Appeals weighs in.

“I think what you’re seeing is prosecutors trying to look for any way to hold people accountable for dealing death,” DeLeonardo said.

In Queen Anne’s County, prosecutors have charged manslaughter three times for overdose deaths and obtained one conviction at a bench trial, according to Christine M. Dulla, deputy state’s attorney.

“We’re going to continue what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re not backing down. We are not going to let the opioid epidemic win.”

Getting help

In addition to charging dealers, prosecutors emphasized the importance of identifying addicts and providing resources, sometimes even before they enter the criminal justice system.

DeLeonardo has two staff members who reach out to anyone who overdoses even if no charges will be filed. The drug education and treatment liaisons, both former drug users in recovery, speak to people as peers and offer options for addiction services.

“Typically, if someone overdoses, we know who they are,” DeLeonardo said.

Carroll County also has a drug court for repeat or serious offenders facing substantial prison time. But as opioids on the street become more dangerous, users are fatally overdosing before they get to that point in the system.

“I often say the whole reason for that program is when you get to drug court, it’s people who have one foot in the Department of Corrections,” DeLeonardo said. “I want to get to these people before that.”

An early intervention program identifies first-time defendants whose charges stem from a drug problem and offers them the chance to participate in an intensive rehab program in exchange for charges being dropped at the end.

“I think the state’s attorney’s offices play a huge role in battling this issue because everything sort of goes through our office,” he said.

Allegany County received authorization for a Court of Appeals-recognized drug court earlier this month, though the county has been running something like a drug court for two years, according to Twigg.

While the current program has about 10 participants, a drug court with a paid coordinator could handle 50 and will not have trouble filling spots, he said.

“If you would have asked me in 2000 whether Allegany County needs a drug court, I would have said no,” Twigg said. Now, “it’s absolutely needed and it’s a vital component and fighting this.”

Shellenberger said Baltimore County does not have an adult drug court — only a juvenile one — but judges and prosecutors are willing to recognize when addiction plays a role in a person’s criminal behavior.

“I don’t ever remember being in a courtroom where that wasn’t the first question a judge asked a convicted defendant and when the judge didn’t try to get the person help,” he said.


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