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Sunday, April 09, 2017 1:00 am

Overdoses seen as trail to dealer

Trend in opioid fight watched locally

RON SHAWGO | The Journal Gazette

Allen County had more than 80 drug overdose deaths last year. A national trend would treat each as a crime scene to help arrest dealers.

The effort is being led by New Hampshire, where police officers and prosecutors are being trained to look for evidence so drugs can be traced to sellers to help curb opioid deaths.

Nothing similar is happening in Indiana, according to the state attorney general's office. An Indiana State Police spokesman said the department is keeping an eye on the success of training in other states before considering such an approach.

An overdose death is treated as accidental in Fort Wayne, though police still look for evidence of crime, Fort Wayne police Capt. Kevin Hunter said. Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander said he could not remember a case in which a dealer was charged in a client's overdose.

“Certainly, in the right circumstance we would consider treating it as a crime scene and have done so and will certainly do so again,” McAlexander said.

Outgoing New Hampshire Attorney General Joe Foster launched the training last summer so officers could learn how to track bad ­batches of drugs to the source, with the goal of charging dealers – particularly large suppliers – who cause overdoses with “death resulting,” a previously little-used charge that carries a sentence of up to life in prison.

In Indiana, a dealer could be charged with reckless homicide if death was the result of an overdose, McAlexander said.

In addition to New Hampshire, authorities in Ohio, Maine, West Virginia and New Jersey are filing homicide, involuntary manslaughter or related charges against dealers.

Officials say New Hampshire stands out because its training was the first to bring local, state and federal officers and prosecutors together to share information so everyone approaches overdose scenes the same – as a crime scene rather than an accidental death. The training teaches police how to gather evidence such as cell phone records that could be traced to the dealer.

Corey Elliot, spokesman for the Indiana attorney general's office, said that while some in the office are aware of the trend, the office is not involved in any similar training.

Indiana State Police also are aware of the trend and taking note of any successes, spokesman 1st Sgt. Rich Myers said.

“It's something obviously that's being reviewed to see if that's another good tool in the toolbox that could be utilized,” he said.

Allen County Sheriff David Gladieux said his agency's vice detectives treat overdose deaths as crime scenes. But it's up to the coroner to decide the manner of death in such cases – whether it was an accident, suicide or homicide. Some are deemed accidental, and there's no reason to go further, the sheriff said.

Even if someone is in critical condition after an overdose, “It's still a crime scene, and everything gets in motion from there,” Gladieux said.

FWPD's Hunter referred to a July 2015 case that is yet to be prosecuted. Investigators used surveillance video and other evidence to connect a dealer with a person who died from an overdose. Hunter said he is confident in the case. No one yet has been charged.

Determining whether a person overdosed on drugs that he or she just took or on a combination of things is hard, Hunter said. “There are no really easy answers with these cases.”

To prove a dealing case, prosecutors must have someone, perhaps a confidential informant or an undercover police officer, who bought drugs from the dealer, McAlexander said.

He recalled being involved in a decade-old case filed in Ohio in which a young man came to Indiana and died from an overdose after trading drugs with his dad. There were “major proof issues” in trying to show that the pills he got from his dad caused the overdose, McAlexander said.

“You get into a lot of medical issues on overdose deaths as to proving the cause of death, not to mention the whole aspect of the dealing part of it,” he said.

Critics of New Hampshire's tough new approach say it doesn't work.

“We've tried to arrest and prosecute our way out of drug problems before to no avail,” said Mark Sisti, a criminal defense attorney who has represented several people facing “death resulting” charges. “We're not getting drug-overdose-death prosecutions against the big guys; we're getting them against the small guys.”

Others argue that resources could be better spent on getting people help instead of prosecuting lower-level dealers, such as someone who is using drugs and shares them with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Law enforcement officials in New Hampshire admit it is too soon to know whether the approach is effective, and they didn't provide data on the amount of drugs taken off the streets.

Since the training, New Hampshire's justice department has charged 11 people with “death resulting,” up from just one the year before. Local departments have sent the attorney general's office 114 cases for more investigation, and county attorneys also pursue “death resulting” charges on their own.

For Foster, who pushed the training, prosecution is just one way of tackling New Hampshire's addiction crisis. But he said people who knowingly cause deaths must face some culpability.

“I'm told by law enforcement that there's chatter about the fact that if you cause a death, you may well be looking at some significant jail time, so hopefully there'll be some deterrence,” Foster said.

Allen County police agencies are cautious. If an overdose appears to be accidental or a suicide, it's treated as suspicious until determined otherwise, McAlexander said.

McAlexander acknowledged a struggle in how best to handle the opioid crisis – medically or through the criminal justice system.

Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deb McMahan would favor prosecuting dealers who lace heroin and other recreational drugs with life-threatening fentanyl. But she would not criminalize the user suffering from substance use disorder and seeking treatment.

“We need to be careful that we don't further stigmatize this medical issue and thereby prevent folks from seeking the treatment that will restore health, hope and productivity,” she said.

rshawgo@jg.net

The Associated Press contributed to this story.