When supplying heroin can lead to homicide charges in Wisconsin

Obviously the use, purchase, sale or delivery of opioids can result in serious criminal penalties. But not everyone is aware that selling - or even just giving - heroin to someone who overdoses can lead to murder charges at both the state and federal level in Wisconsin.

A recent example occurred on September 18, 2015, when prosecutors in Sauk County charged a second person with first-degree reckless homicide for providing heroin to two people who subsequently overdosed. The two victims of the June 1 overdose purchased the heroin for their own use two days prior to their death. The seller and one of the victims' sons, who set up the sale, were both charged with homicide.

Crackdown amid increasing overdose deaths

Over the last several years, prosecutors in Wisconsin have begun to charge suppliers and dealers with reckless homicide when heroin overdose is the cause of death for a user.

In 2014, the number of prosecutions in Wisconsin for first-degree reckless homicide by drug delivery doubled from 2012.

While such prosecutions are up, Wisconsin counties handle homicide charges relating to supplying heroin differently. For example, Waukesha, Fond du Lac and La Crosse are more aggressive in prosecuting these cases, according to an AP article which looked at the heroin prosecutions in Wisconsin. Other counties have yet to prosecute a single case.

Murder charges for drug distribution can also come at the federal level. Federal prosecution of such cases remains relatively rare, although federal prosecutors are also increasingly bringing charges against suppliers.

High burden of proof

One reason prosecution remains uncommon is that prosecutors have a high burden of proof when bringing such charges. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2014 ruling, held that a drug supplier can receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison under federal law if the prosecutors can prove that the drug provided by the dealer or distributor was the one that killed the individual. This can be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, as many drugs may have been in an individual's system at the time of death and the user may have bought or obtained drugs from a variety of sources.

The same is true of state charges. In order to be guilty of homicide, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged supplied the drug that killed the person, and that the drug was the cause of death.

Of course, many people who overdose have a variety of drugs in their system and may have purchased the same drug from various sources, making it difficult for prosecutors to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Charged with heroin or drug crime? Contact Buting, Williams & Stilling, S.C.

If you have been charged with a drug crime, including distribution resulting in death, you need the knowledge and experience of a criminal defense attorney familiar with drug crime defense in Wisconsin. You can contact Buting, Williams & Stilling, S.C., to discuss your situation and legal options.