SALT LAKE CITY — If a drug dealer sells narcotics that cause a fatal overdose, that dealer can be charged in Utah with manslaughter or negligent homicide.
It's a tool that has been available to prosecutors for some time, according to the Utah Attorney General's Office — but it isn't widely used.
Now some counties may be ready to give such cases a renewed look thanks to a recent conference presented by the National Association of Attorneys General.
In January, a 19-year-old Hurricane man was charged in 5th District Court with negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor, and drug distribution, a second-degree felony, for allegedly selling the heroin that a 20-year-old Washington City man overdosed on.
The victim was found by his father in a shed near their home. The father later received information from one of his son's friends that Gadge Leelynd Christensen had sold him drugs, according to a search warrant filed in 5th District Court.
Police went to Christensen's house and interviewed him.
"During the interview, Gadge explained to detectives that he had been the one who had arranged and sold the heroin that the victim had used the night they overdosed," according to charging documents. "During the interview with Gadge, he stated that he knew heroin is deadly and had been killing people."
Christensen was also charged in a separate case for drug possession and possession of drug paraphernalia because of what investigators found in his room the day they interviewed him. He was already facing a charge of possession of marijuana at the time of his arrest.
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap, who attended the attorneys general opioid investigation conference, said negligent homicide is the appropriate charge in the Christensen case, as the crime fit the facts of the investigation.
Belnap said it's one more way his county is fighting the drug crisis.
Last year, Washington County investigated 15 traffic deaths and two homicides, he said. During that same time there were 166 overdose cases, though not all of them resulted in deaths.
"It's a significant public safety issue," he said.
Washington County isn't the only place considering homicide charges for drug dealers.
West Jordan police are also investigating a fatal overdose in which detectives are considering whether to arrest the victim's alleged dealer for manslaughter, according to a search warrant affidavit. As of Friday, the investigation was still active and no arrests had been made, police confirmed.
On Dec. 30, a known drug dealer was found deceased of an apparent overdose, the warrant states. Investigators said they found drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine near the man's body.
After checking the victim's phone, police discovered a conversation on Facebook Messenger with another man about buying methamphetamine, the warrant states. Investigators believe that man "recklessly provided the (victim) with the methamphetamine that took his life," according to the warrant.
In November, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office filed a charge of manslaughter against David Oliver Glatzer, 42, for allegedly providing the drugs that killed a 16-year-old girl in 2016.
Charging suspected drug dealers in connection with a drug user's death is not common, but also not unheard of.
Utah assistant attorney general Scott Reed said drug overdose cases resulting in charges against the person who provided the drugs have been around for a while. But few counties are actively pursuing such charges, which is why the conference was held. Reed noted that the training session has become so popular across the nation that it took a full year to bring the conference to Utah because of scheduling conflicts.
The key, he said, is putting law enforcers in the mindset that when responding to what looks like a routine overdose investigation, treat it as a possible murder investigation.
He pointed to Carbon County — which ranks in the top 10 in the country for per capita overdose deaths — as a place where prosecutors are aggressively going after drug dealers. In 2017, the county had the highest rate of prescription overdose deaths in Utah, according to state health department data, and one of the highest rates of retail opioid prescriptions dispensed per 100 people nationwide, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Deputy Carbon County attorney Jeremy Humes said prosecuting drug dealers who cause fatal overdoses is "one of many tools" law enforcement can use.
"I think that there needs to be some accountability for people who are distributing illegal substances that they know addicts are using in a way that will be dangerous and many people are ending up in fatal situations as a result of that," he said.
Although the county has not filed such a case in a while, Humes said he'd be willing to prosecute one again under the right circumstances.
But he said the county is also trying to focus on treatment and prevention efforts and reducing the stigma of addiction as a way of getting people help and reducing the crisis.
Reed acknowledged prosecuting low-level drug dealers who cause fatal overdose deaths can be hard to prove and probably won't be filed with any frequency. One problem, Reed said, is that many drug users have more than one substance in their bodies when they overdose. Pinpointing the one drug that caused a death and finding the person who provided that drug isn't always easy, he said.1 comment on this story
That's why Reed wants to see new legislation, such as SB43, pass. The bill has been introduced by Utah lawmakers during this year's legislative session to go after professional drug dealers. The bill, if passed, would modify the penalties for drug distribution resulting in death.
"The target of this is the people who are in organizations that that’s what they do," he said.
Reed said that doesn't just mean going after people who bring heroin from Mexico into Utah. It also means prosecuting those who distribute synthetic opioids and drugs such as fentanyl and pink.