Pennsylvania Prosecutors Brought 186 Drug-Induced Homicide Charges in 2017

December 6, 2018

Pennsylvania prosecutors are having a love affair with the state’s drug-induced homicide law, despite its use having no deterrent effect on drug sales.

Joshua Vaughn, a criminal justice reporter at The Sentinel, a paper based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has been tracking the filings. He complied the annual charging data from the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania.

The most recent data available show that prosecutors used the “drug delivery resulting in death” law a whopping 186 times in 2017. That is up over 150 percent from the 77 filings from 2016.

There are a couple interesting takeaways from the data. First, while scrutiny of these prosecutions has increased in recent years, some of Pennsylvania’s most powerful prosecutors have dug in their heels. For example, in Allegheny County, the state’s second most populous county, elected District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr. used used drug-induced homicide charges eight times—and almost exclusively against Black people. He had not used the charge a single time in 2016. Zappala has also been criticized for racial disparities in charging kids as adults. He faces a 2019 Democratic primary against a Black former public defender named Turahn Jenkins, who is running on a criminal justice reform platform.

In addition, the charge seems to be most popular in mid-sized, Republican-dominated counties. York County (population approx. 446,078) gave 2018 Republican Governor candidate Scott Wagner a comfortable victory margin; its DA office used the charge six times in 2016 and 25 times in 2017. Lancaster County (population approx. 542,903), another mid-sized, Republican-leaning county, is home to District Attorney Craig Stedman, who used the charge nine times in 2016 and 22 times in 2017.

In contrast, Lehigh County DA Jim Martin did not use the charge a single time in either year. While Martin is a Republican, the county is solidly blue and gave Governor Tom Wolf one of his strongest victories in his 2018 reelection bid.

Rural, Republican-dominated counties also drive the drug-induced homicide charging trend, but the ensuing cases are resource-intensive and difficult to successfully prosecute. In an area like Philadelphia, a lack of charges reflects more of a political choice, whereas in tiny counties with lean budgets, it may be more a matter of financial pragmatism from otherwise punitive DAs.

Some DAs in small counties manage to find resources, though. Butler County, Pennsylvania neighbors Allegheny County, but the former has fewer than one-sixth the amount of residents. Despite this fact, Butler County DA Goldinger used the drug-induced homicide law four times in 2016 and twice in 2017—nearly as often as Allegheny County DA Zappala for the two years.

This summer, Goldinger was chosen to be the new President of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. The PDAA recently took a significant blow when Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner criticized and left the group, calling it a “voice of the past.”

Family members of fatal opioid overdose victims are often ambivalent about a drug “dealer” (who is often a friend of the deceased) getting hit with the heavy hammer of drug-induced homicide laws. In Pennsylvania, the “drug delivery resulting in death” law carries up to 40 years in state prison.

Carol Katz Beyer, the co-founder of Families for Sensible Drug Policy and a mother who lost two sons to fentanyl-involved overdoses, tells Filter that “Arresting our loved ones who use substances with friends in the event of an unintentional overdose will only result in defeating all of the life saving intentions showcased through the Good Samaritan Laws and drive people further underground, placing them at greater risk.”

Margaret Zhang, a staff attorney at the Women’s Law Center, agrees with this perspective. She recently authored an amicus brief in support of a woman who overdosed while pregnant. Butler County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Richard Goldinger charged her with aggravated assault of a fetus, a first degree felony.

“Even while the threat of prosecution and incarceration tends to deter drug users from seeking treatment,” Zhang told Filter, “research indicates that these punitive measures do not deter drug users from continuing to use drugs.”

Photo: Stephen Zappala, Jr. via

Rory Fleming

Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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