Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Strict Law on Overdoses Still Debated, Long after Court's OK

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Strict Law on Overdoses Still Debated, Long after Court's OK

Article excerpt

When prosecutors charged two Bergen County men with causing the "drug-induced death" of an Emerson woman this week, they applied a rarely used statute that -- although on the books since 1986 and upheld decisively by the state Supreme Court -- remains the subject of legal debate, because of its severity and the difficulties of proving the charge.

The Strict Liability in Drug-Induced Deaths statute essentially treats suppliers as killers if the drugs that they placed on the street wind up causing a death. It is rarely used because the chain of supply leading to the death can be tough to trace.

Often, in the case of an overdose death, "all they have is a dead body," Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said. "We know they took the drugs, but we don't know where they got it from."

Dale Jones, a New Jersey assistant public defender with 40 years of experience, said he has never tried a case involving the statute. "You might be hard pressed to find somebody who has," he said. "We don't see much of it."

But for some, the more important question is not the burden of proof, but whether the statute should be applied at all.

"This statute makes people who distribute drugs that caused death into murderers," said Douglas Husak, a Rutgers professor who has written extensively on New Jersey's drug laws. He said the law, which he calls an example of "draconian" anti-drug laws dating from the 1980s, should be repealed. "We don't hold the seller of an illegal gun liable for murder," Husak said. "Drugs are picked out as unique among all dangerous items."

Thousands of drug deals take place every day, Husak said, mostly without leading to death. "And to single out those who manufacture or distribute, and to prosecute them for murder, just seems really extreme and unwarranted, given that they are doing the same thing that people all over the state and the country are doing."

The two charged this week under the statute are Christopher Benvenuto, 27, of Old Tappan and Jessie Kurzweel, 26, of Closter. They are accused of supplying Doreen Leach, 47, of Emerson with heroin that caused her fatal overdose early Tuesday.

The statute, part of the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1986, is modeled on the so-called felony murder rule, which holds that, if a death occurs during the commission of a felony, such as arson or robbery, the defendant can be charged with murder. The strict liability charge can carry a sentence of 20 years.

"The victim's own personal conduct, the voluntariness of taking the drug or taking too much from the drug, or perhaps taking a little bit from this dealer, a little bit from that dealer -- it is of no consequence under the statute," Molinelli said. "It is not a question of proximate cause, it is a 'but for' question -- but for the ingestion of the drug you provided, would the victim have died? …

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