Brent Eaton, an Indiana county attorney, is prosecuting people who have survived overdoses by using the administration of naloxone (Narcan), the opioid overdose reversal medication, as probable cause for the collection of further evidence needed to charge the survivor with felony drug possession.
Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University professor working at the intersection of public health and criminal justice, considers the Hancock County prosecutor’s policy to be a de facto criminalization of naloxone.
In response to Filter‘s reporting, Eaton’s most recent policy has also been dubbed “perhaps one of the most dangerous and ill-informed responses to the epidemic” by Michael Botticelli, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Barack Obama, and described as “a cruel, ignorant, counter-productive thing to do,” by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
But Eaton’s policy interventions into the overdose crisis did not start with his move to prosecute survivors. He has been a national advocate for so-called drug-induced homicide laws, which are increasingly widespread and result in severe sentences for people who supply drugs involved in a fatality—most often, in practice, loved ones of the deceased.
In 2018, Eaton was one of 32 prosecutors from across the country who crafted a white paper calling for harsher punishments in these cases. As Indiana’s only member of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) Opioid Addiction Crisis Working Group, he helped write recommendations that extended to having all law enforcement “treat every overdose death as a homicide and assign homicide detectives to respond to these scenes,” and having “every person in the chain of delivery criminally liable for an overdose death.”
Drug-induced homicides end up criminalizing folks who otherwise wouldn’t fit the traditional—and implicitly racist—stereotype of a “drug dealer.” A 2019 study by Beletsky found that half of the 213 drug-induced homicide cases he reviewed involved a caretaker, friend, family member or partner who had been using with the decedent. The NDAA’s white paper claims that drug-induced homicide laws will “create a deterrent and turn the tide of opioids flowing through communities,” yet they end up simply punishing people who use drugs.
Its endorsement of drug-induced homicide laws includes encouragement for legislation that “increases penalties for distribution of fentanyl.” Most states (39), including Indiana, have added punishments for the synthetic opioid that’s currently significantly driving the crisis. The laws, in practice, have targeted people of color, and have shown no signs of actually reducing deaths or the fentanyl supply, according to a January 2020 study by the Drug Policy Alliance.*
The white paper also promoted the further involvement of law enforcement in medical responses to overdose. The NDAA working group writes that lawmakers should pass legislation that “requires hospitals to report overdoses to law enforcement.” Yet some have banned such a practice. In 2012, the Massachusetts state legislature prohibited law enforcement from using “the overdose and the need for medical assistance” as evidence to bring drug possession charges and prosecutions against survivors.
Eaton brings his drug-warrior zeal to his county-level prosecution in other ways. During his first term, he appointed a dedicated drug prosecutor to “maximize our effectiveness in this growing and lethal world of opioid addiction,” as his campaign described in a 2018 Facebook post.
*The Drug Policy Alliance has provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.
Photograph of Hancock County prosecutor Brent Eaton by Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office