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How Violence-Free Drug Deals Can Lead to Murder Charges

Earlier this year, two drug dealers were charged with murder. You may imagine that the two drug dealers were involved in a violent crime such as robbery or assault. When we think of drug dealers, we sometimes imagine those scenarios we’ve seen in movies, but in New Jersey, a first-degree murder charge for drug distribution can play out quite differently.

After purchasing and using a powerful synthetic drug composed of a heroin-like opiate, called acetyl fentanyl, from Joseph Colatrella and Alexandria Marcino, 31-year-old Bruce Jirinec, Jr. overdosed and died. Jirinec’s family discovered his body in his home along with the drug and the related paraphernalia. Officers were able to trace the drug purchase back to Colatrella and Marcino through contact they had had with Jirinec, and subsequently charged the two drug dealers with the crime of strict liability for a drug-induced death.

Although the defendants most likely didn’t intend to harm Jirinec, let alone kill him, they could each be facing up to 20 years behind bars for murder.

Strict-Liability for Drug-Induced Deaths

The New Jersey Penal Code mandates a situation where you can be found guilty of murder for distributing drugs to a person who subsequently dies from those drugs. NJ Rev Stat § 2C:35-9 (2013) provides that any person who makes, distributes or dispenses any controlled Schedule I or Schedule II substance may be strictly liable for another’s death when that death results from injection, inhalation or ingestion of the drug.

The prosecutors have to prove that the death was related to the drug, and in doing so can find a sufficient connection where:

  • The death wouldn’t have happened but for the use of the drug;
  • The death was not too remote in its occurrence as to have a just bearing on defendant’s liability; or
  • The death was not too dependent on the conduct of another person as to have a just bearing on defendant’s liability.

It is not considered a defense to assert that the victim contributed to his or her own death by negligently or recklessly using the drug, and further, the defendant cannot claim that the victim should have known the dangers associated with drug use.

Defenses to Strict Liability Crimes

Strict liability means that a person will be found guilty of the crime so long as they acted in violation of the statute. Essentially, a defendant’s intent to commit the crime is irrelevant. The only defense to a strict liability charge are those defenses set forth in the statutes. In these instances, finding and asserting the defenses that will work means the difference between a conviction, exoneration or even a solid appeal case should the lower court make an error.

Defending strict liability cases on any level require a sophisticated legal know-how, but the stakes are even higher when you must defend a strict-liability murder charge. Phillip J. Murphy, has over 25 years of successful criminal defense experience, including drug offenses and violent crimes. Please call today for a free consultation in New Jersey or New York.

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