York, Lancaster lead nation in number of fatal overdose charges, data shows

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Drug Delivery Resulting in Death
York Dispatch Graphic

York and Lancaster counties lead the nation in the number of people charged with providing drugs that caused fatal overdoses, according to data from a Florida-based analytics company.

Critics say charging dealers isn't helping to solve the country's opioid epidemic. They say some addicts are being given what amount to life sentences and that such prosecutions waste resources that could be used for education or treatment.

The district attorneys of both counties say the Pennsylvania charge that allows them to go after opioid dealers — drug delivery resulting in death — is merely a small component in their larger comprehensive plans to battle the opioid epidemic, in which treatment, education, prevention and services play bigger roles.

"We’ve drawn a line in the sand on this," York County District Attorney Dave Sunday told The York Dispatch this week. "I stand by using this charge. ... It is one piece of a huge puzzle (in which) we in York County have many tools we're utilizing to fight this epidemic."

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman agreed there must be consequences for dealers when the drugs they've sold have killed people.

"I’ll be the first one to say we are not going to be able to arrest our way out of this," Stedman said. "But there’s a role for enforcement."

The first-degree felony of drug delivery resulting in death carries a maximum possible prison sentence of 20 to 40 years, which is the same maximum penalty third-degree murder carries in Pennsylvania. Although the state crimes code indicates there used to be a mandatory minimum prison sentence on the fatal drug charge of five years, Sunday said that minimum no longer exists.

The Drug Policy Alliance calls drug-induced homicide charges, which include drug delivery resulting in death, "counterproductive and inhumane" in an 80-page report it released in 2017. The alliance is a New York-based national nonprofit group fighting to end the war on drugs, according to its website; billionaire George Soros is on its board of directors.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday references charts during a press conference at the York County Administration Center Thursday, July 19, 2018. The meeting announced Senate Bill 1222, which would establish sentencing guidelines for the trafficking of 
fentanyl. Bill Kalina photo

'Real-time' data: Florida-based analytics company Lumina Analytics compiled data on the numbers of drug-induced homicide charges using local, state and federal government records as well as a web-based algorithm to scour the internet for media reporting on those charges, according to Jill Kermes, the company's senior vice president for communications.

"What we bring to this is ... real-time analysis," she said. "A lot of these other databases are a year or so behind."

In 2018, Lumina Analytics partnered with Northeastern University School of Law's nonprofit Health in Justice Action Lab and formed Mission LISA to collect and analyze data that could help inform policies on the best ways to end the opioid epidemic, according to Kermes.

The Mission LISA (Learning Indicators of Substance Addiction) project states that as of late 2018, 45 people were charged in York County with drug delivery resulting in death. That's the second-highest number nationwide, below only Lancaster County's 75 people charged.

Pennsylvania counties make up seven of the top 10 counties nationwide in charging people with drug-induced homicide offenses, according to Mission LISA/Health in Justice data.

Westmoreland County is third with 42 cases; Bucks County is fourth with 35 cases; Cumberland and Franklin counties are sixth and seventh with 33 cases each; and Dauphin County is listed 10th, with 31 cases filed.

There are currently 20 states that have drug-induced homicide laws on the books, with another 16 states that prosecute drug delivery resulting in death as felony murder or manslaughter cases, according to Mission LISA.

Local numbers: Sunday said his records show police in York County, in conjunction with the district attorney's office, have filed the charge 54 times between 2014 and 2018, the time period that Mission LISA collected the data.

The current number is 68, Sunday said. There were 14 drug delivery resulting in death charges filed in 2018; 23 filed in 2017; and five filed in 2016, according to York's DA.

"So far in 2019, we have 14," he said.

In some York County cases, more than one person has been charged for the same death; in other cases, a defendant has been charged with multiple counts of the offense for selling or providing fatal doses to more than one victim.

The Lancaster County District Attorney's Office has filed drug delivery resulting in death charges against 76 people since 2014, according to office spokesman Brett Hambright.

As in York County, there are cases where multiple people have been charged for the same fatal overdose, Hambright said, and there are defendants who have been charged more than once with the crime for different deaths.

Why charge dealers? The Drug Policy Alliance claims charging people is punitive and serves no purpose because it doesn't deter drug sales, doesn't prevent overdoses, potentially exacerbates racial disparities, wastes resources that could be spent on treatment and "perpetuate(s) the harms of criminalization, including the misuse of prosecutorial discretion and further stigmatization of people who use or sell drugs."

Sunday said those who follow that logic would allow dealers to continue selling deadly heroin and fentanyl without consequences.

"The law doesn't view it that way and neither do I," he said. And while he agrees addicts bear responsibility for using drugs, he said they are not solely at fault for their own deaths.

Both Sunday and Stedman said family members of addicts who have fatally overdosed generally want to see dealers charged. And, they said, they believe their approach is changing the routines of opioid dealers.

"You’ve got these parents and loved ones left behind … and they do want something done, and the accountability does make a difference to them," Stedman said. "That’s got to be part of the conversation here."

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"Over the past couple years we have come across dealers who have changed their whole methodology on who they sell to, how they sell it and what they sell," to avoid being charged with drug delivery resulting in death, Sunday said.

Stedman said one longtime Lancaster heroin dealer was recently caught with cocaine and methamphetamine. When asked why he didn't have heroin on him, he told police he didn't want to "catch a body" in Lancaster County, according to Stedman. Catching a body is slang for being charged with a homicide offense.

"When you make a decision to dabble in the criminal world, you not only get the benefit of making money off it, you also take a risk that your criminal activity could put you in prison," Sunday said. "That is one of the chances you take in being a drug dealer."

Both district attorneys said drug delivery resulting in death cases are now investigated by police as thoroughly as murders are, meaning police are uncovering more information that in some cases leads them up the supply chain.

"So we're getting bigger dealers," Stedman said.

Dealers vs. users: Not every defendant in York and Lancaster counties charged with drug delivery resulting in death will stand trial on the charge, the district attorneys said — and not everyone who committed the crime will be charged.

Even when police can find enough evidence to take a case to trial, not everyone who technically commits the crime is a predatory dealer, meaning someone who sells solely to make money and isn't addicted him- or herself.

"It would be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and charge (everyone), but that’s not what we do," Sunday said. "We're really trying very hard to the best of our ability to identify individuals who in some shape or form profited from the heroin or fentanyl that was the cause of someone's death."

Sunday said users who aren't dealing to make money might get charged with drug delivery resulting in death but rarely go to trial and get convicted of it.

"In almost all these instances, there's a (negotiated) guilty plea" to a lesser offense, he said. The lesser offense could be felony drug dealing, or the defendant could qualify for drug treatment court and avoid prison altogether.

Predatory dealers have received the maximum sentence in York County.

More:Judge hands down maximum sentence to 'predatory' heroin dealer

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"We're working very hard to address the (epidemic) through our different treatment courts, through other pretrial diversionary programs, through specific charging decisions," and by getting prison inmates into drug treatment, Sunday said.

'Minute' percentage: He also noted that York County has about 10,000 new criminal cases a year, meaning the drug delivery resulting in death cases are "a minute percentage of the totality of (cases) we do."

Stedman said his office also takes into consideration whether the person who provided a fatal dose of drugs is a user.

"We make a big distinction between the predator dealer and the user," he said. "They are treated very differently."

Neither DA thinks charging dealers with drug delivery resulting in death is going to stop people from using opioids or becoming addicted to opioids, but both said they believe using the charge can deter people from dealing in their counties.

"We're not going to know who we save by getting (a specific) dealer out of the supply chain," Stedman said, but someone's life would be saved because of it.

Stedman thinks the charging disparity among Pennsylvania's 67 counties is unfair.

"I think they should be treated the same way across the state," he said.

Comprehensive approach: Both DAs said they advocate for comprehensive strategies in battling the epidemic, including long-term treatment, education and other services.

"It's going to take all aspects of government, all aspects of society," Stedman said. "I've been forced to be educated. For opioid addicts to have a chance at rehabilitation and really breaking the addiction, it takes the brain at least 270 days to unwire. And that's just to give them a chance."

Sunday said that in York County, fatal-overdose prosecutions comprise a "very small component in a vast portfolio" of services and approaches.

There were 172 overdose deaths in York County in 2018 and about 36 so far this year, according to the York Opioid Collaborative, which compiles local data and lists local resources for those trying to break the addiction or maintain sobriety.

Formerly called the York County Heroin Task Force, the collaborative was started largely by the efforts of Sunday and York County Coroner Pam Gay.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

Note: This article has been updated to report that there is no longer a mandatory minimum prison sentence in Pennsylvania for the crime of drug delivery resulting in death.