Tips for Contacting

Congress

We can make a powerful impact by urging our members of Congress to support and advocate Drug Induced Homicide Law. They care what their constituents have to say.

 

Calling Your Federal Legislators

Members of Congress’ offices can be reached through the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. When you call, ask to be connected to the office of your legislator.

Be aware of timing. The most effective time to place a call to your Member of Congress is close to a vote or committee hearing. It is not required that you write a letter or have made an attempt to contact your member prior to a phone call, but it is helpful. If you have written or visited with your legislator in the past remind them or their staff.

Think carefully about the reason for your call before you pick up the phone. The goal is to clearly state what action you want your legislator to take. The call will be brief, so you want to know exactly what you’re asking the legislator to do so you can get right to the point.

Identify yourself, make sure they understand that you are a concerned voter and tell the aide you would like to leave a brief message, for example: “Please tell Senator/Representative (Name) that I support/oppose (S.___/H.R.___).

Ask to speak with the aide who handles your issue. If you want to do more than leave a simple message, you want to make sure you’re talking to the person who works on the issue. Usually, a staff member, not the Member of Congress, will take your telephone calls. Make clear your position and the action you think your member should take. Feel free to ask questions and share information about your issue, but be concise and considerate.

Meeting With Your Legislators

Schedule a visit. Check your legislator’s website (House or Senate) or call the office and ask to speak to the scheduler to find out how to set up a meeting. Many offices require a written request.

You may be granted a meeting with a staff member instead of the legislator – this can be just as valuable because legislators rely on their staff for issue expertise.

Prepare for the visit. Research your legislator’s record on the issue (you can look up votes here).

Plan your arguments. A friendly legislator can be thanked for their leadership and asked to do more. An undecided legislator can be swayed with compelling personal stories. A hostile legislator can be reminded that they have constituents who will be hurt by their position.

If you are going as part of a group, decide who will bring up which points.

Choose a specific request, such as asking the legislator to vote for or against a certain bill.

If possible, create one or two handouts to leave with the legislator, such as fact sheets, relevant news articles, signed petitions, or letters from constituents.

Conduct the visit. Arrive wearing a suit, if possible. Expect some initial small talk. Introduce yourself (or your group), and explain the reason for your visit.

After you make your points, conclude with your request. Thank the official for something if at all possible.

Be prepared for questions, but keep returning to your central message. Stay respectful, even if the legislator disagrees with you. If you are asked for information you do not have, offer to get it. Never make things up!

Try to get the following information: Will the legislator support your position? If not, why not? When and how will they make a decision?

End on a positive note, thanking them for their time.

Follow up. Send a thank you letter to the legislator or staffer you met with, along with any additional information you pledged to provide.

Tips for Talking to Congress

Do Don’t
State your name, address and telephone number so they know you are one of their constituents Burn bridges
Carefully plan a strategy; be specific and ask for action Waste time
Voice your position and solicit support from your legislator Lie
Know your issue, and tell the truth Exaggerate statistics
Always be punctual, polite, and patient Make promises you can’t deliver
Follow-up: Write a thank you note Be argumentative

More Tips

Timing is very important. If the legislation you are concerned about is imminent, contacting your legislator quickly by phone or email can be very effective. However, if you have time, take advantage of several influence techniques, such as writing a letter, or meeting with your elected Members of Congress and/or their staff members. The key is to use timing to your advantage.

Meet with staffers. Staffers are the key to getting work done. It is important to develop a working relationship with staffers who are assigned to your issue. When it comes time for action, knowing someone to call will pay off. The key is to develop a network that can put your action into play.

Voice your position to your Members of Congress. Legislators frequently act on behalf of their constituency, even if your legislator does not currently support your position it can be extremely helpful to contact them. Make your concerns vocal, and solicit support from your Member of Congress.

Know the issue. Legislators have several issues they are concerned with at any given time. Be sure that you have ready information based on sound, scientific research. Ask questions about your Members’ feelings toward a particular issue, and be ready for your legislators to ask you questions about your position. Knowledge is power.

Share information. It is very important to relay any information you receive from your legislator to the members of your organization, community, family and friends. Information helps to broaden the audience.

Understanding Drug Induced Homicide Law

From the Attorney General’s point of view.

Read the Brief

For many years, most prosecutors charged only those drug-related deaths involving rival drug gang fights as being homicides. But the focus has now broadened to also examine overdose deaths as prosecutable homicides against those who sold and distributed the drugs causing the overdose. It is important to emphasize that not every death because of a drug overdose is a criminal matter. Some are suicides, and some are simply accidents. But some deaths, legally and ethically, may rise to the level of criminal homicide. These homicides may not be easily discovered, investigated, prosecuted or proven, but they still deserve attention. For that to happen, a paradigm shift in thinking by law enforcement officers and prosecutors is required, away from attitudes focusing on accident to thinking and treating overdoses as homicides.

In order to make that shift, it is important to understand and appreciate the variety of approaches available within existing statutory schemes and case law. While a handful of states have no statutory or case law basis for treating overdose deaths as homicides,[8] the majority already had or have adopted a wide variety of legal theories useful in addressing these cases. Two basic options highlight the differing approaches: use of the existing statutory structure, often referred to as the felony murder rule, and creation of a specific offense of death resulting from the distribution of controlled substances.

What might be characterized as the traditional approach to the matter may be found in those states that have included overdose deaths within their murder statute. Arizona and Oklahoma, among others, list drug offenses as crimes which, when a death occurs during the commission of that offense, is treated as murder.[9] A significant number of states enumerate drug offenses within their murder statutes and, while the laws have been on the books for a considerable time, they are only now being considered for use in overdose cases.

A felony murder statute allows the prosecutor to charge an offense which requires no specific mental state other than that required for the enumerated offense;[10] the law may specifically state that no proof of intent to cause the death is required.[11] In general, proof of the underlying offense and the cause of death will be sufficient to obtain a conviction under this approach. Additional elements, such as proof that the underlying felony must be inherently dangerous to human life,[12] or proof of recklessness in both causation and appreciation or awareness of the risk,[13] may be required in some states.

Where these various felony murder states differ is in their classifications for punishment for the offense. The possibilities range from first degree or capital murder,[14] second degree murder,[15] manslaughter,[16] involuntary manslaughter,[17] and even negligent homicide.[18] They may also limit the application of the statute. For example, Florida’s statute applies only to distribution by an adult,[19] while Colorado’s statute applies only to distribution to a minor on school grounds.[20]

Those states punishing drug dealing resulting in death as a specific offense have adopted a variety of approaches as well. These “drug-induced homicide” statutes are crafted as stand-alone felonies rather than being included in existing murder or other statutes. Again, as with the felony murder alternatives, the treatment of punishment and application may vary. New Hampshire and New Jersey both define the offense as being one of strict liability.[21] Both statutes, mirroring one another, apply to methamphetamine, lysergic acid, diethylamide phencyclidine (PCP), or any other Schedule I and II controlled substances and provides that any person who manufactures, sells, or dispenses the substances in violation of law is strictly liable for a death resulting from their use.

The varieties of these statutes are numerous and diverse. Pennsylvania’s statute applies to any controlled substance and provides that the delivery must be done intentionally.[22] Delaware has imposed a minimum weight threshold to its statute, requiring, for example, that there be delivery of at least one gram or more of heroin.[23] Michigan’s law covers Schedule I and II controlled substances, but specifically excludes marijuana.[24] A recent amendment to the Illinois law allows for prosecution for a death within the state caused by a drug that was delivered outside the state in violation of the law of that other jurisdiction.[25]

For those states, such as California, which have no felony murder or drug-induced homicide statute that would apply to overdose situations, prosecutors are left to cobble together a criminal liability theory using a second degree murder or manslaughter charge with a negligence or reckless element. California might make use of its involuntary manslaughter statute.[26] New York might make use of its statutes regarding criminally negligent homicide (criminal negligence standard) or manslaughter in the second degree (reckless standard).[27] A bill to amend Ohio’s involuntary manslaughter statute to include causing or contributing to the death of a person as a result of the sale, delivery, or administration of a controlled substance and making it a strict liability offense was introduced but has languished since 2016.[28]

Regardless of the criminal statute scheme, one element is the lynchpin to the crime: causation. Whether a felony murder, strict liability, or reckless or negligent theory, causation raises perhaps the most difficult issues in proving these cases.

Overdose cases have a number of matters that may cause the prosecutor some concern, from lack of sympathy for the victim to proving who provided the drugs. On top of these, many of the victims in overdose death cases are polysubstance abusers, injecting or ingesting a wide variety of both legal and illegal substances. Further, because of their drug addictions, their overall general health may be compromised, making them susceptible to diseases and conditions which might impact the situation leading to their deaths. It becomes imperative for the prosecutor to understand what is needed to prove regarding causation.

States have enumerated a variety of different legal standards for causation of death; “direct result,” “caused by,” “proximately caused,” and “results from” being the more common. Also included are “recklessly causes” and “more likely than not.” Each standard has its own legal ramification. It is important to note, however, that the analysis of proximate causation in tort law is quite different from that analysis applied in criminal law. Mere negligence may suffice in a personal injury case, but not in a criminal matter where gross or wanton disregard is needed to show criminal negligence.

In those states making use of a result-oriented scheme, states may follow the reasoning set forth in the leading federal case on the issue, Burrage v United States.[29] Burrage was prosecuted under the provisions of 21 U. S. C. § 841(b) (1) (C) which provides for punishment in the event that “death or serious bodily injury result[ed] from the use of [the drug].” In Burrage, long-time drug user Banka died following an extended binge that included using heroin purchased from Burrage. At trial, medical experts testified that Bank might have died even if he had not taken the heroin Burrage provided. Denying a motion for judgment of acquittal, the trial court instructed the jury that the government only had to prove that heroin was a contributing cause of death. The U.S. Supreme Court looked at both actual and proximate cause, holding that, at least where the use of the drug distributed by Burrage was not an independently sufficient cause of the victim’s death, he could not be held liable unless such use is a “but-for” cause of death. Thus, under Burrage, a particular drug causing a contributory effect to death is not sufficient to create criminal liability.

This narrow approach to causation makes it especially important that the medical examiner and toxicologist both be consulted prior to initiating a prosecution. Beyond the issue of whether the death is an accident versus a homicide, the medical examiner and toxicologist must understand the legal requirements and what ultimately may be asked of them during testimony in homicide prosecutions such as these. The prosecutor must also understand the distinctions and potential nuances in the medical examiner’s stated cause of death.

Even under a felony murder scheme, often seen as a strict liability situation, causation may still be required. For example, the sole act of selling heroin to a purchaser, who, voluntarily and out of the presence and without the assistance of the seller, subsequently injected heroin and died as a result, may be insufficient to invoke the felony murder rule. In order to convict of felony-murder, it may be necessary in some jurisdictions to show that the conduct causing the death was done while in the commission of a felony or in furtherance of the design to commit the felony.[30] Thus, if the commission of the felony is completed upon the sale, a felony murder charge cannot stand. Nor may the result causation element be ignored even in the strict liability situations. These statutes may still contain a result oriented causation requirement.[31]

Thus, even when not specifically enumerated in the statute, causation remains an essential element. For example, where manufacturing or delivering a controlled substance is the underlying felony relied upon in a felony murder prosecution, the state might still be required to prove (1) the commission or attempt to commit the felony; (2) the defendant’s participation in such felony; and (3) the death of the victim as a result of injuries received during the course of the commission or attempt.[32] Furthermore, the cause of death might not necessarily be the sole cause of death.[33] And where the medical examiner has found that the ingestion of the drug was not the sole cause of death, the prosecutor will face an additional legal hurdle. Thus, in order to make the shift to treating overdose deaths as homicides, it is imperative that investigators and prosecutors find not only the correct legal scheme under which to proceed, but also be mindful of the causation element embedded in a statute or required by a jurisdiction’s case law.

Prosecuting overdose deaths as homicides will not be the silver bullet to the public health crisis this nation faces. However, it is one tool in the law enforcement arsenal which, if used appropriately, can assist locally in focusing on the drug dealers who take advantage of those who have become addicted to opioids.

 

Sources and Works Cited

[1] Ctrs. for Disease Control, Provisional Counts of Drug Overdose Deaths

[2] Illicit Drug Use, Illicit Drug Use Disorders, and Drug Overdose Deaths in Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Areas

[3] The First Count of Fentanyl Deaths in 2016: Up 540% in Three Years

[4] The Heroin Epidemic: Then and Now

[5] Heroin Use Rises Significantly Among Young Whites

[6] Why Fentanyl Is So Much More Deadly than Heroin

[7] Counterfeit Prescription Pills Containing Fentanyl: A Global Threat, DEA Intell. Brief

[8] The offense of trafficking a controlled substance by possession with intent to distribute cannot be the predicate felony to a felony murder conviction because it is not an inherently dangerous crime. State v. Bankert, 117 N.M. 614, 975 P.2d 370 (1994).

[9] Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-1105 and 21 Okla. Stat. Ann. § 21-701/7.

[10] Alaska Stat. § 11.41.120.

[11] Minn. Stat. § 609.195.

[12] Ga. Code Ann. § 16-5-1.

[13] Iowa Code § 707.5.

[14] See, e.g., Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-1105, Ga. Code Ann. § 16-5-1.

[15] La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14:30.1, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.021.

[16] Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. Ch. 265, § 13.

[17] Nev. Rev. Stat. § 200.070.

[18] Mont. Code Ann. § 45-5-104.

[19] Fla. Stat. § 782.04(1(a)3.

[20] Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-3-102(e).

[21] N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann § 318-B:26; N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2C:35-9.

[22] Tit. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 2506.

[23] Del. Code Ann .tit 16 § 4752B.

[24] Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 750.317a.

[25] 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/9-3.3.

[26] Cal. Penal Code § 192.

[27] N.Y. Penal Law §§ 125.10, 125.15.

[28] H.B. 141, 132nd General Assembly.

[29] 134 S. Ct. 881 (2014).

[30] See State v. Mauldin, 215 Kan. 956, 529 P.2d 124 (1974)

[31] N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2C:35-9

[32] See., e.g., State v. Williams, 172 W.Va. 295, 305 S.E.2d 251 (1983)

[33] See State v. Jenkins, 229 W.Va. 415, 729 S.E.2d 250 (2012)