Federal prosecutors sometimes have a powerful statute to use against drug sellers whose products cause fatal overdoses. Specifically, 21 U.S.C. Section 841 – the most common federal narcotics distribution charge – includes enhanced penalties for situations in which the defendants have sold or distributed narcotics that caused overdose deaths. A charge with no mandatory minimum under normal circumstances might carry a 20-year minimum where it can be proven that the drug that was sold caused someone to die. Some prior felons can also face potential mandatory life sentences for selling narcotics that cause fatalities. Even in a case in which the prosecution may not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the narcotics caused a death, the prosecution may be able to secure a very stiff sentence under the federal Sentencing Guidelines, where the evidence proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant’s product is responsible.
First, the government has to prove that the defendant actually sold drugs to the deceased person. Law enforcement frequently uses text messages and phone records to prove transactions in these cases. Law enforcement also frequently attempts to purchase narcotics themselves (undercover) from the target/suspect. That way, in the very least, the government can prove a charge of 21 U.S.C. Section 841, if not the overdose aspect.
Many drug overdoses are polydrug situations, meaning that the deceased person ingested more than one drug recently. In those cases, it can be more complicated to ascertain the precise “but for” cause of death. Certain drugs may interact with each other in unclear ways, and other drugs may work together in aggregate towards the same toxidrome. It is critical to have the assistance of a toxicological expert and an attorney familiar with some of the issues in overdose analysis. Many if not most of the federal prosecutions in this sphere nowadays involve fentanyl, and that drug is indeed far more potent, prevalent and deadly than most others. But that doesn’t mean that fentanyl – even when it shows in the victim’s bloodwork – is always the but for cause of death.