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Md. high court reinstates manslaughter conviction for heroin distribution

Selling heroin to someone who later overdoses can rise to the level of manslaughter under certain circumstances, the state’s high court ruled Monday in a case watched by prosecutors around Maryland.

The Court of Appeals, in a 4-3 decision, reinstated the conviction of Patrick Joseph Thomas, who had been sentenced to 20 years for distribution and 10 years concurrently for involuntary manslaughter by the trial court for the 2015 overdose death of Colton Lee Maltrey.

The Court of Special Appeals reversed the manslaughter conviction last year, finding that Thomas’ actions did not rise to the level of gross negligence and that the state failed to establish a causal link between the drugs sold to Maltrey and his death.

But the majority of the Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the specific circumstances of Thomas’ case were sufficient to convict him of gross negligence involuntary manslaughter.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said Tuesday he was pleased with the opinion, which recognizes there can be a situation in which drug distribution leading to a death rises to the level of gross negligence.

“It’s important to enforce the laws against folks who are distributing dangerous drugs,” he said. “We really want to discourage people, certainly from taking drugs but more importantly from selling them and putting other people in danger.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who like other prosecutors around the state has been waiting for the court’s decision, said the ruling “puts the issue back on the table” for prosecutors who began rethinking their cases after the Court of Special Appeals decision last year.

“I think legally it’s good to know now we can have a case,” he said, adding, “This is about getting people who are slinging poison every day, every week, off the streets.”

Thomas was represented by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. Attorneys there did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Case by case

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Sally D. Adkins, sitting specially assigned, wrote for the majority that the court focused on whether the evidence introduced in the trial court was enough “to vault Thomas’ conduct over the theoretical bar separating ordinary negligence from criminal gross negligence.”

Thomas received multiple calls and texts June 25, 2015, from Maltrey, to whom he had sold heroin in the past, and ultimately sold drugs to Maltrey, according to the opinion. The court found that Maltrey’s desperation and relative youth — he was 23 — and Thomas’ experience with heroin made Thomas’ actions grossly negligent.

“A reasonable person in Thomas’ place would have understood that Colton was desperate for heroin and would have realized that increased the risk of the transaction,” Adkins wrote. She was joined by Judges Robert N. McDonald and Shirley M. Watts and Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.

The majority agreed with a Massachusetts court, which held that “the consumption of heroin in unknown strength is dangerous to human life, and the administering of such a drug is inherently dangerous,” but noted that distribution alone will not always amount to gross negligence.

“Each one of these cases, I think, is going to turn on the facts, but in this one there was plenty of blame upon which to base the judge’s decision,” Frosh said. “The drug dealer really was wanton and reckless.”

The morning after he met with Thomas, Maltrey was found dead of an apparent overdose in the bathroom of his mother’s house, where police discovered four bags matching those Thomas typically sold. Maltrey’s cause of death was determined to be alcohol and narcotic intoxication, according to the opinion.

The majority disagreed with the Court of Special Appeals’ conclusion that the “causal chain” was broken because Malrey had also consumed alcohol.

“Without the heroin Thomas supplied, Colton would not have died, and while the evidence may not establish that the heroin was independently sufficient to cause Colton’s death, it does demonstrate that it was the but-for cause,” Adkins wrote.

Shellenberger said he has not charged a dealer with manslaughter but is always considering it as an option when investigators go to the scene of an overdose death. The Court of Appeals made it clear that each case will be fact-dependent, he said.

“I think everything has to be judged on a case-by-case basis and each fact is going to make a difference,” he said. “Everything in this case mattered, right down to the stamps on the baggies. Everything mattered.”

Frosh said that the opinion appeared to be “fairly narrow and reasonably tailored” and that it would take a while for the case law to develop on the issue.

Dissent

In her dissent, Judge Michele D. Hotten said the majority “seeks refuge” in statistics about the opioid epidemic to justify a manslaughter conviction for someone “who does nothing more than sell heroin to another.”

Hotten, joined by judges Clayton Greene Jr. and Joseph M. Getty, would have affirmed the Court of Special Appeals ruling, relying on the argument that Thomas’ sale of the heroin lacked a causal connection to Maltrey’s death.

Thomas was not present when Maltrey injected the heroin, did not know about other substances Maltrey may have taken and could not have saved Maltrey once he overdosed, Hotten wrote, also noting that police found a prescription bottle of tramadol in Maltrey’s bedroom, a substance that also could have been in his system.

The dissent argues that murder-related charges arising from drug distribution should be addressed by the legislature. The General Assembly has declined to pass legislation that would deem distribution of opioids that result in the death of the user a felony in recent sessions.

“Efforts taken by the General Assembly make it clear that the establishment and recognition of such a crime as charged in the present case is a task for legislators and policy-makers, not judges,” Hotten wrote. “The role of this Court is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the General Assembly, not undermine and contradict it.”

The case is State of Maryland v. Patrick Joseph Thomas, No. 33, Sept. Term 2018.


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