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The Making of a Murder: Opioid Dealers Could Find Themselves in Prison for Life


More than 12,000 North Carolinians have died from opioid-related overdoses over the last 17 years, the majority of which were unintentional, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

At just 16, Sarah Reams had already received her commercial fishing license and enjoyed spending time outdoors working on a boat with her boyfriend, Ryan Gibbs. In June, the pair were found dead in a Hyde County home after a family member stopped by to check on them. After police became involved, it was discovered the couple bought a drug they thought was cocaine, but did not get what they bargained for.

Toxicology reports showed that fentanyl, a synthetic cousin of heroin, was found in the drugs sold to Reams and Gibbs by 25-year-old Tiffaney Webber. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid pain-killer like morphine, but 50 to 100 times more potent.

As heroin and other opioids like fentanyl send more and more victims to the morgue, prosecutors are now wading into uncharted legal terrain to fight back. In this case, Hyde County District Attorney Seth Edwards charged Webber with two counts of murder and four counts of possession with the intent to sell. A second suspect, Alfornia Anderson, 32, was also charged with two counts of murder.

Prosecutors across the country are using laws that come with stiff penalties to target drug dealers and members of the drug supply chain, and connect them and the drugs they sell to deadly overdoses. It’s hoped that the process with hold dealers accountable and greatly reduce drug-related deaths.

The Sad State of Affairs

The Virginian-Pilot reports that 479 deaths related to fentanyl or a close copy of the drug occurred in our state in 2016—nearly twice as many as the 241 the year before, according to a report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The statistics include deaths related to prescription and illegally manufactured drugs.

The percent of opioid deaths involving heroin, fentanyl, and related analogs caused more than half of the opioid deaths in 2016—58.4%. In 2010, these drugs only accounted for approximately 15% of deaths. By 2021, it’s expected that heroin or fentanyl will comprise close to 90% of opioid deaths if action is not taken.

No one is immune to the crisis. Increasing death rates are seen in men and women of all ethnicities and across all age groups, starting at age 15. Geography is not protective either. When looking at overdose fatalities from 2010 to 2015, increases were found in 30 states and Washington D.C.

In a recent statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “[The] report shows significant increases across states in death rates from heroin and synthetic opioid deaths, coupled with continuing high numbers of fatal overdoses related to natural/semi-synthetic opioid deaths.” This illustrates “the continued problem with misuse of prescription opioids and the substantial impact of illicit opioids on this epidemic.” The CDC also reiterates the need for law enforcement and health officials to work together to control the epidemic.

Does a Drug Deal Equal Murder?

Douglas Husak, a legal-philosophy professor at Rutgers University, says slapping dealers with murder charges is not only excessive, but misleading. “You want the labels of what criminals have done to give people some kind of idea of what crime they’ve committed,” he said. “You don’t want to call somebody a rapist if what he did was grope somebody. I’m not condoning groping, but you’ve misrepresented what he’s done. To call people who sell heroin ‘murderers’ seems to distort what they’ve done. Call it like it is—they are drug dealers.”

But prosecutors and police leaders say heroin’s surging death toll has necessitated a tougher and more sophisticated approach to policing. Drug-induced homicide laws are not new—more than 20 states have them, but most were put on the books decades ago at the height of the war on drugs. Prosecutors around the country are now dusting these laws off to combat the raging opioid epidemic.

Tom Synan, police chief in Newtown, Ohio, agrees with this strategy, saying many dealers are well aware of the dangers of heroin and the more-potent fentanyl. “In many cases, not only do they have prior knowledge, they are the ones helping to mix it,” he said. “To me that is more than just a street drug. You are intentionally fueling the addiction and giving [users] a product that is extremely dangerous and could cause their death, and you know it.”

The increasing trend of prosecuting drug dealers with homicide is gaining steam across the nation in the wake of the opioid epidemic. Under normal circumstances, if an individual in North Carolina is suspected of selling another person drugs, he or she would face drug charges and, if found guilty, would be sentenced to approximately five years in prison. However, if the dealer is convicted of murder in the second degree, it could mean life in prison.

Todd Williams, Buncombe County’s district attorney, explains how distributors of opioids could face second degree murder charges: “[It] basically goes to the malice component…second degree murder is the unlawful killing of another person with malice and the legislation has defined an opioid substance sold on the street as constituting that malice.”

What’s Considered Fair?

Many legal experts argue these drug death prosecutions are not only unfair, but probably unconstitutional. As Husak put it: “Heroin distributors are not murderers, and they’re not murderers when their customers die from an overdose.”

The National Criminal Justice Reference Service agreed in its report on the practice, Unconstitutional Fiction. “Regardless of the felony committed by a drug supplier, the act of supplying the drug does not legally cause a user’s overdose and death. Courts that use the rule [felony murder in drug prosecutions] violate the accused’s constitutional guarantee of due process of law by failing to prove the causation of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”

It’s not only causation that is problematic, but also intent. Felony murder charges (as distinct from manslaughter) require that intent be proved, legal experts say. Critics charge that politicians and prosecutors are trying to side-step intent with the new drug dealer liability laws.

Advocates and defense attorneys argue that prosecuting people for murder or manslaughter is unfair because the user is ultimately responsible for ingesting the substances. They also argue that “strict liability” is essentially a tool of civil, not criminal law. They say that except for vehicular manslaughter, it’s rare to prosecute someone for accidentally causing death.

“We don’t prosecute people in this country for accidentally killing someone, no matter how horrific,” comments Houston-based defense lawyer Craig Washington. “Strict liability is for civil court, not criminal.”

But prosecutors argue that selling illegal drugs to someone who then overdoses is like driving while intoxicated and then killing someone.

Washington disagrees. He says the state must prove not only that the drugs sold by the dealer caused the death, but that the dealer must also be proven to have intended for the victim to die.

“First, the state must prove that the person died of an overdose and then be able to trace the drugs back to the client,” he said, describing a hypothetical defendant. “And what if my client sold his drugs to someone else, and that person either stepped on the drugs to make them stretch or laced the drugs with something to increase their potency, and that person sells the drugs to someone else who dies? How can my client be guilty of that person’s death?”

It can be said drug use and abuse is as American as apple pie, but there are different ways in which to respond. Will this return to the harsh drug policies of the 1980s work today? Punishing drug dealers then didn’t seem to stop the problem—will it do so now? It all comes down to an individual and the cravings and addictions they fight. The epidemic won’t end until the desire for such destructive drugs is a thing of the past.

For more information or to schedule a consultation, please contact GreeneWilson Attorneys at Law by calling (252) 634-9400 or visiting www.greenewilson.com.

(Sources: North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services; The Washington Post; National Institute on Drug Abuse; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The County Compass; National Public Radio; AlterNet; The Virginian-Pilot; Citizen-Times; Ocracoke Observer; WGHP.com; WRAL.com; and WNCT.com.)

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Teens and Alcohol: A Disastrous Mix

Drivers under the age of 21 are responsible for approximately 17 percent of all fatal alcohol-related crashes in the U.S. According to the CDC, nearly 2,000 underage drinkers die every year while operating a vehicle, and alcohol is a factor in one-third of all teen auto accidents.

In North Carolina, getting a DWI when you’re under 21 years of age can carry substantial fines and may require some offenders to serve out lengthy terms of probation. It can also have lasting repercussions for those over the age of 18—many former underage drinking convicts report having difficulty finding steady employment or rental housing.

It’s important to note that underage DWI has much more restrictive penalties than a normal DWI. If convicted, you may lose your license for a longer period of time. If you’re under 21, you may not be able to get limited driving privileges.

What’s Considered Under the Influence?

North Carolina is a zero-tolerance state. If a chemical test determines that a driver under 21 has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .01 percent or higher, the driver can be cited for driving under the influence. (For those 21 or older, the BAC limit is .08%)

What Are the Penalties?

There are five levels of misdemeanor DUI charges. Level V is the least serious and Level I is the most serious. For all misdemeanor charges, the license is suspended immediately for 30 days with the possibility of limited driving privileges after 10 days.

A Level V misdemeanor DUI is punishable by a fine of up to $200 with a minimum jail sentence of 24 hours and a maximum of 60 days. A judge can suspend the sentence to 24 hours of jail or 24 hours of community service.

A Level IV is punishable by a fine of up to $500 with a minimum jail sentence of 48 hours and a maximum of 120 days. A judge can suspend the sentence to 48 hours of jail or 48 hours of community service.

Level III misdemeanors have a fine of up to $1,000 with a minimum jail sentence of 72 hours and a maximum of six months. A judge can suspend the sentence to 72 hours of jail or 72 hours of community service.

Level II misdemeanors have a fine of up to $2,000 with a minimum jail sentence of seven days and a maximum of one year. A judge can’t suspend the minimum sentence for a Level II DUI.

Level I misdemeanors have a fine of up to $4,000 with a minimum jail sentence of 30 days and a maximum of two years. A judge can’t suspend the minimum sentence for a Level I DUI.

Level I and II drivers are repeat offenders, persons driving with a revoked license, impaired drivers with children in the car, or impaired drivers who’ve hurt someone in a crash.

Those charged with driving after consuming under age 21 for the first time, who have not caused a serious accident, are often given a break by the court. Many counties in our state offer a first-time offender program where criminal charges may be dismissed and/or expunged by meeting certain requirements, such as community service or probation.

Additional Charges

In addition to driving under the influence, an underage drinker may be charged with any of the following:

  • Distributing alcohol to other minors (were there underage drunk passengers?);
  • Minor in possession;
  • Soliciting alcohol;
  • Child endangerment law violations;
  • Possession of false identification (was a fake ID used to purchase alcohol?); and
  • Moving and vehicle maintenance violations (what else did the arresting officer see?).

Don’t Fight Charges Alone

You would never walk into an operating room and tell the doctor you’ll be performing your own surgery, so why would you do the same in a courtroom? As a parent, you know how important it is to give your child every advantage—and that includes expert legal representation. Not only can a good attorney negotiate penalty alternatives like community service and limited driving privileges, he or she will fight to get the minimum penalties, and may even be able to get charges dropped altogether.

A good number of underage drinking charges that don’t come attached to more serious charges are dismissed. While your teenager may have to perform several dozen hours of community service or attend an alcohol-education course, his criminal record will be free of a conviction related to this offense. The initial charge will appear on his public record, but it can more than likely be expunged or sealed at a later date.
Members of the experienced team at GreeneWilson can explain your possible outcomes, investigate your offense, and help you avoid the negative consequences you may face. For more information or to schedule a consultation, please contact GreeneWilson Attorneys at Law by calling (252) 634-9400 or visiting www.greenewilson.com.

(Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; North Carolina Department of Transportation; North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles; Absolute Advocacy; Huffington Post; Nolo Network; and CNN.)

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A “Drink or Two” Could Mean Jail Time in North Carolina

We are all aware that drinking and driving is wrong. No one should get behind the wheel of a car after a night of drinking. Unfortunately, some may decide they are still able to drive after two or three glasses of wine or a shot or two of liquor and that’s the big problem. We wrongly assume that “just a couple of glasses” in no way affects the ability to drive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 300,000 incidents of drinking and driving occur each day. And an arrest doesn’t typically mark the first time a person drives under the influence: The average drunk driver does so over 80 times before getting caught.

You’ve Made the Wrong Decision

You grab your keys and leave the bar late on a Saturday night. Just a few miles down the road you hear a siren and see the flashing lights. The officer smells alcohol so he requests you step outside the vehicle and submit to a field sobriety test. You fail the test and are then required to take a blood alcohol content (BAC) test. You blow a 1.2% and are immediately handcuffed, charged with Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), and now facing serious legal repercussions.

What are your next steps?

You first need to find experienced legal counsel. North Carolina uses a very unique sentencing system for punishing driving while impaired convictions that is much different than what is used for any other type of crime. While it’s generally true that you could expect a lesser punishment for a DWI first offense in the state, this is not always the case.

North Carolina uses a system based on six levels of possible punishment. Within each level is a range of punishments the court can impose. If you are convicted of DWI, the first determination made by the court is what level to apply. The law has a list of sentencing factors that might be present in a case and must be considered. “Mitigating factors” can help reduce punishment, but “aggravating factors” can make things worse and “grossly aggravating factors” can be devastating to your case.

Court Will Decide Your “Level”

North Carolina DWI penalties are based on your “level,” and your judge uses mitigating factors to determine that level. Factors include your BAC, prescription medications, current driving record, and other aspects of your situation and overall driving history.

As listed on the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s website, there are five levels of misdemeanor DWI, with Level I being the most serious and Level V the least.

Level V

Punishable by a fine up to $200 and a minimum jail sentence of 24 hours and a maximum of 60 days. A judge can suspend the sentence, but only the after the driver spends 24 hours in jail, performs 24 hours of community service, or avoids operating a vehicle for 30 days.

Level IV

Punishable by a fine up to $500 and a minimum jail sentence of 48 hours and a maximum of 120 days. A judge can suspend the sentence, but only after the driver spends 48 hours in jail, performs 48 hours of community service, or avoids operating a vehicle for 60 days.

Level III

Punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and a minimum jail sentence of 72 hours and a maximum of six months. A judge can suspend the sentence only upon completion of at least 72 hours in jail, performing 72 hours of community service, or not operating a vehicle for 90 days.

Level II

Punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and a minimum jail sentence of seven days and a maximum of one year. A judge cannot suspend the minimum sentence.

Level I

Punishable by a fine up to $4,000 and a minimum jail sentence of 30 days and a maximum of two years. A judge cannot suspend the minimum sentence.

Level I and II drivers are repeat offenders, those with revoked licenses, impaired drivers, impaired drivers transporting young children, and impaired drivers who hurt someone in a crash. Impaired drivers must complete a substance abuse assessment and comply with any recommended treatment as a condition for having their license restored at the end of the revocation period.

When DWI Becomes a Felony

For Habitual DWI offenders, drivers who have had three prior DWI convictions within the past seven years, DWI becomes a more severe felony. But, more importantly, the Habitual DWI statute now mandates a minimum active jail term of one year—a sentence that cannot be suspended. Offenders must also go through a substance abuse program while in jail or as a condition of parole.

The Governor’s DWI Initiative takes away from repeat DWI offenders the means to drive while impaired; namely, their cars. Under the new provision, a law enforcement officer can seize a driver’s car if the officer charges that person with DWI and that person was driving while his or her license was revoked due to a previous impaired driving offense. The seizure happens at the time of the arrest and not after the case has come to trial.

If a court convicts the driver of DWI and of committing the offense while driving with a revoked license due to a previous impaired driving offense, the judge will order the vehicle forfeited. The school board can then sell the vehicle and keep the proceeds, sharing the money with any other school systems in the county, or keep the car for its own use. The law does allow vehicle owners to get their cars back if they were not the driver convicted of DWI, but only if the court is satisfied they are an innocent party.

Call Your Attorney Immediately

As you can see, dealing with a DWI charge is complex and can be confusing to most. All DWI violators must appear before a judge—it’s crucial you have a knowledgeable and experienced attorney by your side to help you navigate the process. He or she can help you get as close to the minimum penalties as possible and aid in the negotiation of limited driving privileges and penalty alternatives like community service.

Generally, the court and Department of Motor Vehicles issue limited driving privileges at their own discretion, which means you don’t technically apply for a restricted license, but you may request restricted privileges.

Your attorney might find that you’re immediately eligible, or discover how long into your suspension or revocation you must get before the court will issue limited driving privileges.

Prevention is the Best Course
Obviously, your best option is to not remotely consider operating a vehicle after consuming any amount of alcohol. So, how can you prevent drinking and driving?

  • Always choose a designated driver every time you go out.
  • If you go out alone, do not drink alcohol. Order a soft drink or water.
  • If you’ve been drinking, call a taxi or car-sharing service for a ride.
  • Never get in a car with someone who has been drinking.

Think of it this way: Is drinking and driving more important than your legal status or life? Take a cab, protect yourself and others on the roadways, and don’t become another drinking and driving statistic. Operating a motor vehicle while sober can be difficult enough; adding alcohol or other intoxicants into the mix is putting your life and the lives of others on the roadways at risk. Make the right choice and put your keys down.

For more information or to schedule a consultation, please contact GreeneWilson Attorneys at Law by calling (252) 634-9400 or visiting www.greenewilson.com.

(Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, North Carolina Department of Public Safety; State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company; National Public Radio East; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; QuitAlcohol.com; DMV.org.)

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