This paper provides options for prosecutors in addressing opioid overdose cases, highlighting innovative, effective strategies that will improve prosecutors’ response, ranging from providing access to treatment to prosecuting overdose deaths as homicides.
The core research for this paper consisted of interviews with experienced prosecutors and their team members from the following prosecutor offices: Richmond County (Staten Island), New York; Worcester County, Massachusetts; Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee; Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan; and Orleans Parish, Louisiana. The experiences and views of prosecution teams in these jurisdictions provide a sampling of opioid-related prosecution initiatives. The research also included county-level data analyses related to opioid overdose deaths and trends, press coverage of notable opioid overdose investigations and prosecutions, an analysis of relevant cases and statutes, and reviews of local law enforcement manuals for opioid overdose investigations. The first of four parts of this paper addresses prosecutorial roles, goals, and policies in addressing the opioid epidemic. The second part discusses the charging decisions that prosecutors can make in these cases. The third part provides guidance on processing overdose death scenes and conducting overdose investigations. The fourth part focuses on the approach to opioid overdose cases of the Richmond County District Attorney’s Office in Staten Island, New York. This case study illustrates many of the issues raised in this paper. The appendix provides a survey that can assist prosecutors in evaluating their options in these cases, assess available resources, and decide how to proceed. Also included are an Opioid Investigation Worksheet and charts of drug delivery and “Good Samaritan” statutes.